May 2020 books read

  • Something That May Shock and Discredit You – Daniel Lavery (as Daniel Mallory Ortberg), 2020. Kind of a weird mish-mosh – I enjoyed parts of it very much but wished there was more straight-ahead memoir. But what sticks in my mind the most is the analysis of “transmasc energy” as originally exemplified by William Shatner’s Kirk – partly because I’m re-watching the original Star Trek, but also because I love windows into subcultures I’m not part of.
  • Cost Price – Dornford Yates, 1949. Sequel to Safe Custody with a lot more detail about the carved jewels, but burdened with tiresome late-Yates tropes, especially “woman who’s lower than hero’s social level but he magnanimously treats her well and so she’s head over heels for him.” The earlier book wasn’t in the Richard Chandos series, but this one features him and he drags that trope along – as well as too much focus on how ridiculously strong and naive he is. Ugh.
  • The Brontës Went to Woolworths – Rachel Ferguson, 1931. Jonathan borrowed this through ILL and it sounded so bonkers that I read it as well before returning. What a strange, sometimes-delightful, sometimes infuriating book – it takes a long time to figure out what the heck is going on with this crazy family, and then once I did, actual ghosts turned up and broke the genre I thought it was in. Plus the protagonist ends up being quite mean. But it was fascinating and if I had a copy I might read it again – I think its strangeness would be a bracing shock all over again in a few years. I’ve certainly never read anything at all like it.
  • Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen, 1811
  • My First Summer in the Sierra – John Muir, 1911 – quotes pulled, tbd
  • Hungry Hill: A Memoir – Carol O’Malley Gaunt, 2007 – Irish Writers book group selection, but I didn’t pull any quotes. I hadn’t finished it when we discussed it in April, and I went back to it out of sheer stubbornness, but I regret it. One of the worst books I’ve ever read and not even in an interesting way – sentence by sentence the writing is competent, and the topic could have been fascinating, but there’s no there there.
  • A Child’s Delight – Noel Perrin, 1997. I’m a fan of Perrin, of books-about-books, and of children’s literature, so naturally I loved it. I’ve added a few titles to my to-read-someday list (The Planet of Junior Brown, I Go By Sea I Go By Land, Dogsbody, the stories of Laurence Housman) and loved all the essays about my already-favorites. My only minor disagreement is about the Magic Schoolbus books, which I think were over-hyped – but maybe I should give them another chance.
  • Juno and the Paycock (1924) and The Plough and the Stars (1926) – Sean O’Casey, for Irish Writers book group. Not enough quotes to do a separate post; J&P was amusing, P&S hard to follow, but we agreed we’d really need to see them performed to get them. I knew these plays by title but didn’t know they were about the Irish revolution – I thought J&P was related to Leda and the swan… Words learned: “fistic” (related to boxing); “glad neck” blouse (deep V collar); “Shan Van Vok” – reference to “The Sean-Bhean bhocht,” a traditional song which also personifies Ireland.
  • The Shining – Stephen King, 1977. Not my favorite King but I was drawn back to it by thinking about Jack Torrance’s writing. The description of his play sounds pretty terrible, and the idea that it’s going to make him his fortune seems rather quaint even in the 70s… Might not read this one again ever – in fact, I’m 55 (1/2!) and that’s probably a good resolution to start making about books I’m not compelled by. Unless there’s some essay or idea I want to work out!
  • Magic, Inc. – Robert Heinlein, 1940. I was remembering the delightful Heinlein short about the dust devil (“Our Fair City”) and revisited this novella. It’s a weird mixture of small-business story in a world where magic can be harnessed for capitalism, which segues into an interminable watching-the-sausage-get-made political yarn. (The very detailed Wikipedia summary deals with the politics in one sentence, but it feels like a third of the book). There’s lovely chemistry between the narrator, Archie Fraser, and the old witch Mrs. Jennings, one of my favorite ultra-calm-and-competent Heinlein women.
  • Doctor Sleep – Stephen King, 2013. The sequel to The Shining which I thought I had never read until I started it again and I totally did try it already, presumably in 2013 or 2014. To my taste quite a bit better than the first, but a couple of plot holes: a not-very-sensical measles-immunity McGuffin, and a miniature train which goes on infrequent excursions to distant points up big grades (granted, there is at least one very long miniature railway – thank you King for making me research this – but nonetheless there is something so weird about the way this Look Park scale thing is described and then they’re heading off to like, Mount Sugarloaf for picnics – who maintains the track? how does this make sense logistically?) I might try the movie at some point.
  • The Practicing Mind: Bringing Discipline and Focus Into Your Life – Thomas M. Sterner, 2005 (early self-published edition). I thought this would be a fairly easy purge/low-hanging fruit from the shelves of self-help books I’m trying to purge – I’m a sucker for them! – but it’s actually quite good. Apparently Sterner went on to found a self-help empire, critiqued for promising the moon and the stars, but this original version is modest in its aims, and reaches them.
  • Red Dragon – Thomas Harris, 1981. I kept hearing how great this series was and finally checked it out. People are not exaggerating. I loved the sequel even more, but this first Hannibal book is remarkable – compelling, readable, and thought-provoking too. Thriller is not my favorite genre but yeah, this was a great read.

Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen, 1811

We read this for the Great Books group – moved up a few months because public domain books are easiest while Forbes is closed. Unlike many, I didn’t get into Austen until I was at least in my 30s, and this may only be the third or so time I’ve read it. Immediately after finishing it I had to go re-watch the Emma Thompson movie, which is one of the few screenplays I think really improves on the original book (the other one that leaps to mind is To Kill a Mockingbird).

I keep forgetting this was her first novel – no wonder it’s not the best! It’s amusing, but the pacing is a little choppy. I think early Austen is more prone to the tendency, showcased here, for the protagonists to be essentially perfect (with some room for improvement, but basically born good, full of virtue and refined taste) and everyone else to be on a spectrum between foolish and bad. We’re told of Elinor at the very beginning that “her feelings were strong; but she knew how to govern them: it was a knowledge which her mother had yet to learn.” Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne are both silly, and though Elinor’s sense will learn to share her feelings a little more, Marianne’s sensibility (sensitiveness verging on romantic sentimentality) will need to change dramatically.

Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne enjoy being miserable: “The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again.” Marianne “was without any power, because she was without any desire of command over herself.” They are foolishly optimistic: “with them, to wish was to hope, and to hope was to expect.” Mrs. Dashwood plans improvements to the cottage “from the savings of an income of five hundred a year by a woman who never saved in her life.” When she rewrites history about Colonel Brandon, “Elinor perceived … the natural embellishments of her mother’s active fancy, which fashioned every thing delightful to her as it chose;” and then

“There was always a something,—if you remember,—in Willoughby’s eyes at times, which I did not like.”

Elinor could not remember it

Marianne, with excellent abilities and an excellent disposition, was neither reasonable nor candid. She expected from other people the same opinions and feelings as her own, and she judged of their motives by the immediate effect of their actions on herself.

Of course we get delightful observations of the silliest people:

Sir John was loud in his admiration at the end of every song, and as loud in his conversation with the others while every song lasted. Lady Middleton frequently called him to order, wondered how any one’s attention could be diverted from music for a moment, and asked Marianne to sing a particular song which Marianne had just finished.

Having to spend so much time with such annoying people – and because Marianne won’t bother to be polite, Elinor bears the brunt of the social niceties – makes the socializing feel vividly oppressive. Marianne quips: “The rent of this cottage is said to be low; but we have it on very hard terms, if we are to dine at the park whenever any one is staying either with them, or with us.”

Marriage usually seems fairly tedious if not unhappy; no wonder that in Austen’s narratives we get to the altar and stop there! But marriage is the be-all and end-all. The women walk a knife-edge between “virtue” and complete disaster (Moll Flanders was such a bracing alternative!) – Willoughby can say flatly that even though his aunt would have forgiven him if he married Eliza, “That could not be.”

A few more delightfully snarky yet realistic passages:

The whole of Lucy’s behaviour in the affair, and the prosperity which crowned it, therefore, may be held forth as a most encouraging instance of what an earnest, an unceasing attention to self-interest, however its progress may be apparently obstructed, will do in securing every advantage of fortune, with no other sacrifice than that of time and conscience.

But that [Willoughby] was for ever inconsolable, that he fled from society, or contracted an habitual gloom of temper, or died of a broken heart, must not be depended on—for he did neither. He lived to exert, and frequently to enjoy himself. His wife was not always out of humour, nor his home always uncomfortable; and in his breed of horses and dogs, and in sporting of every kind, he found no inconsiderable degree of domestic felicity.

We talked about Austen’s eternal appeal for adaptation: partly the human love of gossip; partly how cuttingly funny she is; partly how tidy and neat the narrative is, with a small cast of characters, a few locations, and happy endings tied up in bows; partly the conflict between a particularly repressed/restrained milieu and the full range of human nature (since it’s the Regency, Austen’s characters don’t yet pretend to ignore sex and death, unlike typical Victorians).

Somewhere I have the Emma Thompson book of the screenplay and her shooting diaries, which I’ll re-read when I find it. The screenplay’s pacing, the character development (especially little sister Margaret, who’s a cipher here but in the movie gives both Edward and Brandon opportunities to show their caring and goodness), the brilliant mix of textual dialogue and new lines, the wise character pruning (I don’t miss Lady Middleton, but Anne Steele has some good bits) – it’s an amazing adaptation. And then the movie piles on top-notch casting (the big names of course, but also Hugh Laurie as Mr. Palmer! Harriet Walter as Fanny!), superb acting, and Ang Lee as director. I’m finishing this post about two weeks after the discussion, and I’m ready to watch it again.

Shorter quotes:

  • “a fond mother, though, in pursuit of praise for her children, the most rapacious of human beings, is likewise the most credulous; her demands are exorbitant; but she will swallow any thing”
  • Willoughby “hardly ever falls in love with anybody”
  • “Mrs. Jennings’s endeavours to cure a disappointment in love, by a variety of sweetmeats and olives, and a good fire”
  • Mrs. Ferrars “was not a woman of many words; for, unlike people in general, she proportioned them to the number of her ideas.”
  • “no poverty of any kind, except of conversation”
  • Poor Elinor has “to be the comforter of others in her own distresses, no less than in theirs”
  • John Dashwood “never wished to offend anybody, especially anybody of good fortune”
  • “Marianne Dashwood was born to an extraordinary fate … to overcome an affection formed so late in life as at seventeen.”

In this book I learned:

Reading Project Gutenberg books on various devices

During the pandemic, the two Forbes Library book groups that I coordinate (Great Books, and Nature and Environment) are reading books in the public domain so that we can get them online without waiting lists. I wanted to compile some directions to send to group members but haven’t found a good one-stop resource, so I’m attempting one here. Please add a comment if you have better resources or if any of this is incorrect.

I will send out links to the main download location for the book, which is in pattern[book number]. Here we use Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, Note that if you do an Internet search for a title, the result you’ll often get will be the link directly to the HTML version (“Read this book online”): That’s great for reading in a web browser, but if you have an e-reader or tablet you can download a file that you can read more easily.

Click the link to download the EPUB file for Android (Google Play Books) or Mac (iBooks or Apple Books). Use the Kindle link for Kindle. You can choose the Box, Google Drive, or OneDrive icons to download directly into those cloud services rather than onto your hard drive.

  • On an Android phone or tablet, or on a Chromebook, use the Google Play Books app. The simplest way is to visit on a computer first and click Upload Files. You can upload from the local computer or from Google Drive. After you select the file (epub in this case, but you can also upload PDFs), it will take a minute to process. Once complete, the book is in your Play Books library under Uploads and can be accessed from any device which has the Play Books app installed.
  • On a Mac or iPad, use the iBooks or Apple Books app. Click File/Add to Library and browse to the file you downloaded (epub in this case, but you can also upload PDFs). [I don’t have an iPad to test on; you should be able to import there as well or visit the mobile version of Project Gutenberg,]
  • For Kindle, plug the device into your computer and drag-and-drop the downloaded .mobi file into the Documents file on your Kindle. Or you can send it to your Kindle via email.

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness – Sy Montgomery, 2015

Very enjoyable but far from perfect. One of the Nature and Environment book group folks said she’d made the mistake of listening to the audiobook and did a very funny impression of the author (who reads it herself) being dramatic about everything: “And THEN I picked up my GLASSES and they were AMAZING!” Also, we were shocked by the poor captive octopuses who live in a pickle barrel, which Montgomery touches on but doesn’t fully engage with.

The bottom right corner of each page makes a little flip-book of an octopus moving, which is cool.

I’ve always loved octopuses but learned a lot that was new to me:

  • they taste people’s skin with their suckers
  • the females have estrogen (and in fact, lots of hormones are cross-species, like oxytocin—I had no idea!)
  • Tennyson’s “The Kraken” is about an octopus (did I ever read it? and me such a Tennyson fan!)
  • octopuses can change the texture of their skin as well as its color
  • a hagfish can “fill seven buckets with slime” in minutes (which led me to learn much more about the amazing genus Myxini–that name! the only animal with a skull but no vertebral column; they can tie themselves into a knot for leverage or slime exudation! they can eat with their skin!!!)

An octopus presented with a difficult puzzle for the first time often undergoes several rapid changes in color, like a person who frowns, bites his lip, and furrows his brow when trying to solve a problem. A nervous octopus takes special care to disguise its head and especially its eyes, and can create a variety of spots, bars, and squiggles to confuse a predator. … Another disguise is known as the eyebar display, in which an octopus makes a thick, dark line extend at the outer edge of the eye from either end of each slit pupil, masking the roundness that is typical of an eye.

I strongly identified with this quote: “A bite from a fish or an octopus is proof we are willing, even eager, to literally give ourselves (even tiny, actual pieces) to the animals here [at the aquarium], in order to touch the wild” because it reminded me of feeding stingrays on a trip to the Florida Keys. It was an amazing experience—the rays swarmed me as I sat in the shallows with their food, like muscle pancakes shouldering each other aside—but the trainer warned me to keep my hand flat with the food because “they’ll accidentally bite you, and it feels like getting your finger slammed in a door” (because the ray’s teeth are like flat cement plates smashing together). I did get bitten and that’s exactly what it felt like. I wouldn’t have tried to make it happen on purpose, but I’m glad it did because it was so alien and cool.

  • “an area pocked with nooks and crannies into which an octopus could melt as easily as butter into an English muffin”
  • diving is “like being an invisible time-traveler to another planet”
  • “The ocean, for me, is what LSD was to Timothy Leary. He claimed the hallucinogen is to reality what a microscope is to biology, affording a perception of reality that was not before accessible.”

Above the surface, we move and think like wiggly children, or like teens who twitch away at their computer-phones, multitasking but never focusing. But the ocean forces you to move more slowly, more purposefully, and yet more pliantly. By entering it, you are bathed in a grace and power you don’t experience in air. To dive beneath the surface feels like entering the Earth’s vast, dreaming subconscious. Submitting to its depth, its currents, its pressure, is both humbling and freeing.

Narada the ascetic and Vishnu:

When Vishnu became thirsty, he asked Narada to fetch him some water. Narada went to a house and there met a woman so beautiful he forgot what he came for. He married the woman; together they farmed the land, raised cattle, and had three children. Then came a violent monsoon. Floods threatened to carry away the village’s houses, the cattle, the people. Narada took his wife by the hand, his children by the other. But the waters were too strong and they were lost. Narada was swept beneath the waves. Washed up on shore, he opened his eyes… to see there, still waiting for his drink of water, Vishnu—the got who is often picture as sleeping on a fathomless ocean as his dreams bubble forth to create the universe.