September 2022 books read

  • 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style – Matt Madden, 2005. A delightful and ingenious reimagining of Raymond Queneau’s Excercises de style in graphic-novel form. I especially loved the homages to R. Crumb, Winsor McCay, the Bayeux Tapestry, Charles Atlas ads, and Chick comics; and Madden’s clever ringing of various conceptual changes reminds me of Sol LeWitt’s methodical approach.
  • Pachinko – Min Jin Lee, 2017.
  • The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter – Colin Tudge, 2006
  • Daniel Deronda – George Eliot, 1876.
  • The Bridge Across Forever – Richard Bach, 1982. A friend brought up Jonathan Livingston Seagull (as the epitome of a terrible best-seller, as I recall), and I mentioned this one, which led to another re-read. Bach is one of my love-them-despite-their-flaws authors; he might easily be the worst of the bunch (some others are Frances Hodgson Burnett, Dick Francis, Robert Heinlein, Stephen King, Nevil Shute, Dornford Yates), but he’s got something that draws me back. It’s such a weird combo of sappy and quirky, of wish-fulfillment and unwitting self-owns. And although I don’t believe in the kind of eternal/astral soulmates he describes, Jonathan is my forever partner and I root for stories of true intimate partnership. The real Richard Bach and Leslie Parrish broke up, but the couple in this book still has a place in my heart.
  • The Dark is Rising – Susan Cooper, 1973. Read for Annabookbel’s #TDiRS22. I was surprised to realize I had never read it before, so it’s lovely to have this monthly journey to complete the series.
  • Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads – ed David Morrell, Hank Wagner, 2010. I love books-about-books, and although thrillers aren’t my favorite genre, I enjoy some of them. I added a few to my to-read pile, from old (Oppenheimer’s Great Impersonation) to sort-of-old (Goldman’s Marathon Man).

Daniel Deronda – George Eliot, 1876

It’s no Middlemarch but I’m glad I read it. Opinions divided in the Great Books group about the first half, which focuses on Gwendolyn, versus the second half, which is more Daniel’s story. I found Gwendolyn tiresome, and her suitor/husband Grandcourt purely horrible – much more of a villain than anyone in Middlemarch. My favorite character is Princess Halm-Eberstein, who gives a powerful feminist speech near the end.

Short quotes

  • “Having always been the pet and pride of the household… she naturally found it difficult to think her own pleasure less important than others made it”
  • “Was there ever a young lady or gentleman not ready to give up an unspecified indulgence for the sake of the favorite one specified?”
  • “In the school-room her quick mind had taken readily that strong starch of unexplained rules and disconnected facts which saves ignorance from any painful sense of limpness”
  • “the sort of question which often comes without any other apparent reason than the faculty of speech and the not knowing what to do with it”
  • “Much quotation of any sort, even in English is bad. It tends to choke ordinary remark. One couldn’t carry on life comfortably without a little blindness to the fact that everything had been said better than we can put it ourselves.”
  • “sort of contemplative mood perhaps more common in the young men of our day—that of questioning whether it were worth while to take part in the battle of the world: I mean, of course, the young men in whom the unproductive labor of questioning is sustained by three or five per cent, on capital which somebody else has battled for.”
  • “authorship—a vocation which is understood to turn foolish thinking into funds”
  • “Their faces seemed full of speech, as if their minds had been shelled, after the manner of horse-chestnuts, and become brightly visible.”
  • “The days and months pace over us like restless little birds, and leave the marks of their feet backward and forward; especially when they are like birds with heavy hearts—then they tread heavily.”
  • “What should we all do without the calendar, when we want to put off a disagreeable duty? The admirable arrangements of the solar system, by which our time is measured, always supply us with a term before which it is hardly worth while to set about anything we are disinclined to.”
  • “I wonder why he fixed on me as the musical one? Was it because I have a bulging forehead, ma, and peep from under it like a newt from under a stone?”
  • “… pressing his lips together, rubbing his black head with both his hands and wrinkling his brow horizontally, with the expression of one who differs from every speaker, but does not think it worth while to say so. There is a sort of human paste that when it comes near the fire of enthusiasm is only baked into harder shape.”
  • “day followed day with that want of perceived leisure which belongs to lives where there is no work to mark off intervals”
  • “To have a pattern cut out—‘this is the Jewish woman; this is what you must be; this is what you are wanted for; a woman’s heart must be of such a size and no larger, else it must be pressed small, like Chinese feet; her happiness is to be made as cakes are, by a fixed receipt.’”
  • Quoting William Browne: “A wretch so empty that if e’er there be / In nature found the least vacuity / T’will be in him.”
  • “we were as different as the inside and the outside of the bowl”
  • Reading the lists of marriages in the newspaper gave Mrs. Meyrick “the pleasant sense of finishing the fashionable novels without having read them, and seeing the heroes and heroines happy without knowing what poor creatures they were.”
  • “Those who have been indulged by fortune and have always thought of calamity as what happens to others, feel a blind incredulous rage at the reversal of their lot, and half believe that their wild cries will alter the course of the storm.”
  • “What outpourer of his own affairs is not tempted to think any hint of his friend’s affairs is an egotistic irrelevance?”

In this book I learned about:

  • byssus: very fine cloth, or the attachment of mussels
  • scent of russia – ie Russian leather
  • making plates with playing cards – I can’t find specifics about this game. It sounds like they are tossed together? “The grandmother had a pack of cards before her and was making “plates” with the children. A plate had just been thrown down and kept itself whole. … The plate bore several tossings before it came to pieces.”
  • anecdote: “the dying Copernicus made to touch the first printed copy of his book when the sense of touch was gone, seeing it only as a dim object through the deepening dusk”
  • stiving: “to shut up in a warm close place”

Deronda on gambling – I have never thought about it from this angle, and it resonates:

I think it would be better for men not to gamble. It is a besotting kind of taste, likely to turn into a disease. And, besides, there is something revolting to me in raking a heap of money together, and internally chuckling over it, when others are feeling the loss of it. I should even call it base, if it were more than an exceptional lapse. There are enough inevitable turns of fortune which force us to see that our gain is another’s loss:—that is one of the ugly aspects of life. One would like to reduce it as much as one could, not get amusement out of exaggerating it.

The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, and Why They Matter – Colin Tudge, 2006

Read for Nature & Environment – we loved it! Tudge writes beautifully. I especially enjoyed the methodical tour through all the major plant families; the notion that trees are just as dynamic as animal organisms, just not on our timescale; and the clear explanation of polyploidy (first time I’ve felt like I’m beginning to understand it).

Short quotes

  • “an old kapok tree in Costa Rica in which biologists had thus far listed more than four thousand different species of creatures”
  • “A forest is a forest because it has trees in it, not because it may have sloths and toucans or squirrels or chimpanzees. The trees are the prime players and the animals are the dependents.”
  • “the idea … that each of us might aspire to be a connoisseur of nature, and connoisseurship implies a combination of knowledge on the one hand and love on the other, each enhancing the other.”
  • What is a tree? “Many plants … have independently essayed the form of the tree. Each achieves treedom in its own way. ‘Tree’ is not a distinct category, like ‘dog’ or ‘horse.’ It is just a way of being a plant.”
  • “The more that is revealed, the more wondrous nature becomes. The more we know about living creatures, the more deeply we can engage with them. This is the appetite, as Hamlet said, that grows from what it feeds on.”
  • “Typically, the botanist says that two similar trees are the same, while the mateiro [indigenous expert] says they are different” and is proved right.
  • “The Ducke Reserve is about a hundred thousand times smaller than the United States … yet harbors nearly twice as many kinds of native trees.”
  • “It is at least possible that many local names in Maori and a thousand other languages are not meant to express particular relationships at all. After all, traditional societies—or at least the specialists within them—typically know their local flora and fauna as well as the rest of us know our friends and family. When you know everyone individually, you do not need to name them in ways that express particular relationships.”
  • “The Latin names can be rather long, and sometimes too similar for comfort. If you’re sitting up late with a 40-watt bulb it’s easy to confuse, say, the Myrtaceae, Myricaceae, Myrsinaceae, and Myrsticaceae.”
  • “For my part, I feel that Darwin’s is a glorious vision. I love the notion that we are literally related to all other creatures: that apes are our sisters, and mushrooms are our cousins, and oak trees and monkey puzzles are our distant uncles and aunts. Conservation, on such a view, becomes a family affair.”
  • W. D. (Bill) Hamilton proposed that it was the need to avoid parasites that prompted the evolution of sex—for sex produces the generation-by-generation variation that makes life difficult for parasites, which tend to be highly specialized, to get a hold.”

Longer quotes

Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or a mosque—a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy.

I’ve been fascinated by lantana since seeing it grow wild in Tucson and recognizing it as the pretty pot plant with multicolored flowers I know from the northeast, so this was an interesting anecdote:

Dr. Sas Biswas, of the Forestry Research Institute in Dehra Dun, northern India, tells a charming story of sandalwood trees he once found growing in a dead straight row in the middle of nowhere. Why were they there? Who had planted them so carefully and then abandoned them? No one, is the answer. But in the past there had been a garden; and around the garden was a fence; and along the fence grew the inevitable Lantana; and sandalwood had grown as parasites from its roots. Now the garden and the fence are long gone and the Lantana with it, but the sandalwood remains.

Mangrove tree roots breathing:

The rising tide pushes the old air out; and when it recedes, fresh air flows in again through the lenticels and pneumatophores. Thus the roots of the mangrove trees effectively breathe. They use no muscle power to do this, as an animal must. The sea is their diaphragm. The tide serves to aerate their roots; wind and fleets of obliging animals spread their pollen and seeds. Trees just don’t need the elaborations of muscle and blood and nerves on which animals expend so much.

You would not immediately suspect, if you confronted an aspen in an urban park, that it is among nature’s most resourceful trees. It has a languid air, with wanly fluttering leaves on long, flat stalks, which in autumn turn a melancholic yellow. … Yet for all its bloodless foppishness the quaking aspen has the widest distribution of any North American tree, and in large stretches of the far north it is the dominant and at times the only species.

Fig pollination dependent on specific species of fig wasps:

If we do anything to interrupt the lives of the wasps—are too free with insecticide, for instance–then we we will kill off the figs, or at least ensure that the present generation is the last. The fruits of figs are essential provender not only for bats and birds but for a host of other creatures too. In Panama, figs of various kinds are in fruit all through the year, while most other fruits are far more seasonal. There are times when figs are all there is. Take away the figs, and half the fauna could be in serious trouble. The whole ecosystem balances on a pinpoint—and we could tip it into oblivion without thinking; or, indeed, we could let it slip through our fingers even if we were trying very hard to save it. On the other hand, precarious though it seems, figs and wasps have maintained their relationship in one form or another without interruption for more than forty million years. There is robustness in the system. If only we can work with it, it might pull through yet.

In this book I learned

  • Rainforest trees are especially difficult to identify and study because there are so many different species, most of them look alike, and they flower at unknown/unpredictable times.
  • “[Linneaus] led botanical expeditions from his native Uppsala with the local band out in front and everyone dressed in a uniform of his own design.” Wish I could find an illustration of them!
  • Bryophytes are not known to be a clade – “nobody knows the relationship between [liverworts, hornworts, and mosses], or whether they are closely related at all”
  • The Lost Gardens of Heligan
  • Northern conifers are tall and thin not to shed snow, but to maximize the light they get on the side, since the sun is low
  • Knobcone pine and Monterey pine can enclose their old cones in wood
  • Wollemia, like the coelacanth, was only known from 120 mya fossils until a group turned up in Australia in 1994
  • The name “spruce” comes from “Prussia”
  • Retrophyllum minus (a podocarp) is a tree that grows in running water!
  • Double fertilization – Tudge’s explanation is easier for me to understand than Wikipedia’s: in angiosperm embryogenesis, “a second cell in the pollen fuses with two sets of cells in the ovule to form a combined cell with three sets of chromosomes; and this peculiar triploid cell then multiplies to form a food store, rich in carbohydrates, protein, and often fat, that surrounds the embryo.”
  • Seagrasses are like marine mammals – they are land plants that moved to the water, but they still have flowers and pollen!
  • Avocados have a crazy system where there are two types of flower, A and B, that can only be pollinated by the opposite flower based on time of day
  • Macadamia nuts are indigenous to Australia – “the only native Australian food plants of significance to world markets”
  • Sweetgum, as the name indicates, has a fragrant resin. Tudge says it’s “known as storax or styrax,” but Wikipedia uses “storax balsam” to distinguish it from “storax” aka benzoin. I am fascinated by resins, and we have introduced sweetgums around here (Liquidambar styraciflua), but I’ve never noticed their resin. Something else to look out for!
  • There’s a native bittersweet, Celastrus scandens! I’ll keep an eye out – sounds like the terminal flower/berry clusters would be the easiest way to tell.
  • “Golden rice” is no big deal because other plants (mangos, papayas etc.) have plenty of vitamin A. “If high-tech vitamin A-rich rice is ever of help at all, it is only in regions where traditional agriculture has been shoved aside by high-tech, industrialized, monocultural farming.”
  • “a tree could grow to a height of nearly two miles if the tensile strength of water was the only constraint on its growth”
  • Sebertia acuminata accumulates nickel from soil
  • Parkia flowers: “pompoms of stamens and styles, bright red or pale yellow or bronze, depending on species, that hang from on high on long, thin threads like Christmas baubles”
  • Dependency of tambalacoque on the dodo’s gizzard apparently is too simplistic, as they are growing fine if protected from pigs etc. “Evidently it wasn’t the presence of dodoes they required but an absence of imported herbivores. This is excellent news for the tambalacoque. But it is a pity, indeed, to kill off such an excellent story.”

I questioned these

  • Tudge repeats a tidbit from the Encyclopedia of Wood, that the Paris Metro tracks are made from ekki timber (Lophira alta). I can’t find any independent confirmation, but the wood is used for railway sleepers.
  • He claims “beeches that are allowed to grow into forest trees shed their leaves” (as opposed to hedges). I certainly see tons of marcescent beeches in the woods – or are those not “forest trees” because they don’t get huge before disease takes them?

Pachinko – Min Jin Lee, 2017

I read this in September 2019 and again in September 2022. Posting it as a “quote dump” in November 2022 (backdated to September since that’s when I finished it), part of a new push to get my gazillion draft posts up so they are at least searchable. I may or may not ever come back to turn them into a proper “review,” which isn’t even exactly what I do here… more like an impression?

September 2019: Common Read for Amherst College. Min Jin Lee is the new Writer-in-Residence so I got to attend her talk for the incoming freshmen, which I enjoyed tremendously—more than the novel. I did find it engrossing and interesting, but the writing is a little clunky in parts. My favorite aspect was all the Korean food and culture I got to look up:

  • ponytail radishes – omg there are so many kinds of radishes, but not as diverse as the types of Brassica oleraceae
  • mompei – baggy Japanese work pants often dyed with indigo
  • Koreans having to adopt Japanese surnames
  • We use (store-bought) gochujang to make our own version of bibimbap, but I didn’t know about doenjang
  • jesa – ceremonies honoring deceased ancestors
  • tayaki – fish-shaped waffles – in the US there’s a chain that uses them for soft-serve ice cream, and I’d love to try it! I did, summer 2022 in Boston – more fun than delicious, but glad I had it once
  • gimbap – like Korean sushi
  • noonchi – emotional intelligence, literally “eye-measure” – such a useful term!
  • chima – long billowy skirt
  • cha color” – I guess this is brown, based on this amazing list? Some of those remind me of the neural net color names – a comedy classic!
  • unagiya – eel restaurant – I recently read something about a famous eel restaurant, I think M. Manze, and wish I could remember where I saw the article. It was about how most people who ordered eel didn’t really like it.

Yes, life in Osaka would be difficult, but things would change for the better. They’d make a tasty broth from stones and bitterness.

She would not believe that she was no different than her parents, that seeing him as only Korean—good or bad—was the same as seeing him only as a bad Korean. She could not see his humanity, and Noa realized that this was what he wanted most of all: to be seen as human.

However, she didn’t believe her son had come from a bad seed. The Japanese said the Koreans had too much anger and heat in their blood. Seeds, blood, how could you fight such hopeless ideas? Noa had been a sensitive child who had believed that if he followed all the rules and was the best, then somehow the hostile world would change its mind. His death may have been her fault for having allowed him to believe in such cruel ideals.

Re-read for Second Monday in September, 2022. The last quote above is the only one I marked both times!

  • “For a woman, the man you marry will determine the quality of your life completely. A good man is a decent life, and a bad man is a cursed life.”
  • “You want to see a very bad man? Make an ordinary man successful beyond his imagination.”
  • “Now that he was gone, Sunja held on to her father’s warmth and kind words like polished gems.”
  • “Patriotism is just an idea, so is capitalism or communism. But ideas can make men forget their own interests. And the guys in charge will exploit men who believe in ideas too much.”
  • “At lunchtime, Haruki sat at the end of the long table with two seat gaps around him like an invisible parenthesis while the other boys in their dark woolen uniforms stuck together like a tight row of black corn kernels.”
  • “The fools here have pumpkins for heads, and seeds are not brains.”
  • “Her wet, shining eyes blinked, lit up like lanterns. Her young face shone through the old one.”
  • “It had been eleven years since he’d died; the pain didn’t go away, but its sharp edge had dulled and softened like sea glass.”