Tag Archives: Books

Year of a Database

 

close up of beeFor the last twelve months I have kept a database of “books read.” Besides the function, which this blog has also so valiantly served, of providing offsite data storage for my brain, I find that I enjoy the time, after I read a book, to think on it a bit. Writing helps me to think. No, that’s not quite it, writing helps me to organize my thinking. I am a person who cannot resist the allure of organization.

I suppose that what has drawn me back this-a-ways is that, by necessity, a database is a bit bare-bones. It has, however, been fun looking over the data. Some of my fields are for open text: title, author, thoughts; but some I made multiple choice, like, genre. I recently had to add memoir to my genre choice pool, but otherwise I had nature, history, science, philosophy, novels and biography—I was trying to get away with using biography for memoir, but it was wrong, I can see that now, so I capitulated and added memoir—I’ve only one memoir in my 2019 reads, and one biography which really is a memoir-y thing.

I also have a rating system: read, skimmed, gave up. There were three “gave ups” two “skimmed” and a “read, gave up” and then a “read, skimmed,” multiple choice is allowed in my database. Now that I am a woman of a certain age I allow myself the luxury of giving up on a book. It still takes quite a lot to force myself to quit, but I have no regrets. Life is short and there are too many books to read that I will enjoy to slog through the books I do not.

Nine of my “nature” books were books about bees. Not surprising as we started a little apiary this year. I’m enjoying calling myself a smallholder now. Very exciting. We have concerns, by which I mean ventures, although I guess with ventures come concerns of the worrying kind.  Alas not money-making concerns, but who knows, one might need to live off the land sooner than one likes to think. We’ve been at work with our chickens, bees, mushrooms and an orchard full of peaches, pears and berries. Soon apples!

Two books were entitled The Idiot. Dostoevsky, of course, and the other by Elif Bateman. Of the later, I wrote in the “Thoughts” column of my database: “Flits along from one thought or minor event to another, but all goes to show the awkwardness of what appears to be a young mind, but in fact is the awkwardness of a thoughtful mind whose attachment to “knowing” is weak—only to discover that “knowing” and knowledge are weak properties. Bateman doesn’t make cute and adorable the awkwardness. And no good comes of it. It’s just a perpetual discomfort of not knowing what the right thing to do or think or say is. It’s a long book (400+) but very readable and engaging. Bateman has a humor that is endearing: writing of taking the train back to Harvard in January after the break, “I had listened to my Walkman while reading Père Goriot. Père Goriot’s previous owner, Brian Kennedy, had systematically underlined what seemed to be the most meaningless and disconnected sentences in the whole book. Thank God I wasn’t in love with Brian Kennedy, and didn’t feel any mania to decipher his thoughts.” (P 81)

I seem to have gone off on at least two bends in 2019. The first was with Wittgenstein and the second was a dive into the neurology of emotions. Lisa Feldman Barrett’s book How Emotions are Made in which she expands upon her research showing that “we are the architects of our own experience” and that affective realism, concept construction, and social reality form our experience of our emotional response, is wonderfully thought-provoking. Her book led me to The Accidental Species: misunderstandings of human evolution by Henry Gee, The Island of Knowledge by Marcelo Gleiser, Selfie: how we became so self-obsessed and what it’s doing to us by Will Store and finally the novel The Idea Of Perfection by Kate Grenville. These were in a cluster because I heard Barrett and Store on a podcast (Ezra Klein’s) and so I read both their books and some of the books they recommended. All very edifying.

Seems books about books is a category I don’t easily tire of: I read The Library Book by Susan Orlean, I noted in my database that this was “a paean to libraries. Fascinating and interesting.” I also read Double fold: libraries and the assault on paper by Nicholas Baker which I found a tad obnoxious. Referring back to my database I find my thoughts ran along this line: “Unnecessarily of the j’accuse tone—naming names, calling out even lowly librarians who don’t necessarily have much say in how things are done. So that’s rude. He’s not wrong, he’s just an asshole. And, big error, one doesn’t need gloves to handle rare books. Also, by his lights we should never throw anything out. I don’t know what we should keep, but keeping everything seems absurd. That said, microfilm sucks.” The Archivist and The Bookshop (Martha Cooley and Penelope Fitzgerald, respectively) were two more. I preferred the later to the former: “Started out engrossing.” I wrote nicely enough, but I then continued: ” Lost me for the entire middle as story shifted to diary entries of the mad wife. But, I wanted to see how it ended and so was very disappointed by the end in which the archivist destroys TS Elliot’s letters to his long time mistress. The story did not coherently lay out the case for the reason of the act. His entire mea culpa regarding his wife, after all, was that he was incapable of bearing witness to truth (the horrors of WWII). Or at least to stay firm next to her while she at least faced the truth. So the culmination of the novel is to destroy personal letters? To decide what is whose business? Who gets to stand witness of what? As if it fucking matters 100 years after everyone is dead? If this is true, what is the point of archives? Who draws the line on art or records and none of your business? Would he destroy Hitler’s love letters? Why not? Stupid novel. Too long.”

Well. Aren’t I the opinionated one. If it weren’t for my database I’d probably forget many of these books. I certainly do not recall the vehemence of my response above. I must have been cranky that day. That is a difference between this blog and my database. I have always only written about books I really like or found interesting here. But my database is all the books. So things are said.

I’ll round up my 2019 review of my Books Read Database with this gem: Effi Briest by Theodore Fontane. I love it because I picked it up at the League of Women voter’s annual book sale knowing nothing of it. I was on the committee and so helped them to sort books by genre. It was so much work, much more mentally taxing than you might think. To consider each of the thousands of books and sort them into their correct genre table (as designated by someone else. I really wanted a non-fiction table, or an essays table, there are, it turns out, a lot of books of essays and musings, but not alas, according to my local LWV). We were allowed to take a book per shift. I worked many shifts. There were even a couple of books that I took, read, and then returned before the sale even began. (oh darn, I just recalled a book I read and returned but forgot to enter into my database….Genre: nature. Micheal Pollen’s Second Nature. It was good. Damn it, that reminds me of some others not in the database. So much for completness.) Anyway, Efie Briest was lovely and unexpected. Now that I think about it, it was similar in tone (not quite in mood, but certainly in tone) to Bateman’s The Idiot. Efie’s story is not cynical though—or whatever the modern term is for a sort of disengagement. Selin, the protagonist of The Idiot, is sweet but does not embody the heroic aspects of her story in the way Efie does. Efie’s engagement with her own life leads her to a transformation of her thinking about what it means to discover that it all amounts to not much. Selin’s discovery of the same sort is almost like an after-thought. Instead of—my, god! it’s much ado about nothing and yet the stars still shine— it’s our modern day disaffection—oh. that’s it? okay…— Both feel true however, depending on ones mood, but the first warms and second cools.

The redemptive quality of Efie Briest was done in such a way that even my alienated little heart lost out to my other insuperably joyful and hopeful heart: “the love affair, for all that the novel’s plot and point turned upon it, was very subtly done. But in the end, that was correct because it was all nothing of import. How much trouble things of no import cause.” But the stars, they do still twinkle.

 

A few more highly recommended reads from my database:

The Field of Blood: violence in congress and the road to civil war by Joanne B. Freeman

Milkman by Anna Burns

The Queen Must Die: and other affairs of bees and men by William Longgood

Blue White Red by Alain Mabanckou

Petersburg by Andrei Bely

The Dancing Bees: an account of the life and senses of the honey bee by Karl von Frisch

The White Book by Han Kang

Neither Wolf Nor Dog by Kent Nerburn

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

Violations of Light

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“…Now, here is a simple, ordinary English script of the purest sort: elegance can go no further, everything here is lovely, a jewel, a pearl; this is perfection; but here is a variation, again a French one, I borrowed it from a French traveling salesman: this is the same English script, but the black line is slightly blacker and thicker than in the English, and see—the proportion of light is violated; and notice also that the ovals are altered, they’re slightly rounder, and what’s more, flourishes are permitted, and a flourish is a most dangerous thing! A flourish calls for extraordinary taste; but if it succeeds, if the right proportion is found, a script like this is incomparable, you can even fall in love with it.” — The Idiot by Fydor Dostoevsky (trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky), p 34

When I read a book I always mark it up: turning up the bottom corners of pages that have a word, line, or passage I love and then sometimes putting a mark in pencil alongside the words so that I don’t have a what the hell did I find so interesting about this page?! moment when I go back to it. Some books I read have many such markings, but some get none. It doesn’t always mean I didn’t like the book if I don’t mark it up, only that there were particular concise arrangements of words that struck me hard as either funny, moving, philosophical, or all of the above that I will want to return to some day. My copy of The Idiot does not have many upturned pages and only one that is marked. That is the above passage.

As I go back over the book to think through my impression of it, I wonder at the general lack of upturned corners. As well, considering the rather somber message of the story, I also note the seeming randomness and levity of the one quote I marked. I know why I marked it, I take a particular interest in the topic…but, also, upon further reflection, I found I enjoyed stretching the metaphor out a bit. In a way, the quote is wonderful because it nearly says everything about the book at once—and, truly, who can resist a paean to scripts? Surely not me.

Reading The Idiot was often like watching a film at one and a half speed that went something like this—a group of people crowd into a room, much passionate talk ensues, the group all depart at once, stumbling out into the hall or street and then it happens all over again for more or less 600 pages. It’s all very amusing on that level. Crazy people all hot and bothered over all their crazy concerns. These personalities are the flourishes and the flourishing abounds. Unreserved, unrestrained, unadulterated flourishing, in their own hand. It can be a mess. I read in some analysis of the story (I can’t remember where now) that the plot was not in fact plotted—Dostoevsky let the story unwind by itself. It did feel that way.

But, like nearly everyone else in the novel, my heart was moved by the dear Prince. Lovely light of a man. He tries ever so hard to find the right proportion. In his way he tries to avoid flourishes, but people read them in anyway. The articulation of that very human condition, in which one thinks one is saying something in the plainest way possible but in which one is instead heard to be meaning something else is at the heart of Dostoevsky’s novel. We are all taken, most all of the time, to be thought of as manipulating our text, as it were. There is no tolerance for innocence. Bad motives are the only possible explanation. I have taken to sometimes prefacing a question by saying, “this is simply a question, I mean nothing other by it than to ask the actual question…” just to make sure the flourishes of someone else’s life doesn’t spill over and warp a simple point of clarification on my part.

This seems more prevalent today than ever, although Dostoevsky obviously exposes the lie of what something feels compared to what something is. Clearly if he is writing on the subject 100 years before my birth, then what I feel is not necessarily what is so. Perhaps we can say that it’s amplified today—what is social media if not a mega-soapbox of the professionally aggrieved and willfully offended? No question is innocent, everyone is a troll, and it goes without saying that everyone’s motives are evil.

The Idiot has no answer to this dilemma.

You acknowledge that society is savage and inhuman because it disgraces a seduced girl. But if you acknowledge that society is inhuman, it means you acknowledge that this girl has been hurt by this society. But if she’s hurt, why, then, do you yourselves bring her out in front of that same society in your newspapers and demand that it not hurt her? Mad! Vainglorious! p 285

It’s only the tragedy and hypocrisy of it all that can be expressed. We all bring our own flourishes when we endeavor to communicate with others, but they are dangerous things, and the meaning or intent can get lost when we imprint our own neurotic or damaged histories. Maybe, if we could agree that it is right to take care in how we talk to and treat others on a personal and societal level—and how we respond to others, that is to say, tastefully—without leaving a bad taste—we might begin to have something beautiful, something one could fall in love with.

 

books and loves: an immigration

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“When he had taken a last swallow and put down the cup he’d get up and say thank you and go—so she had to think of something to say, quickly, to mend, justify, the pickup.
What about you?
It was the wrong thing—there! She’d done it, it came out god-awful as Showing Interest, and she thought she heard him take a breath in order to deal with it, with her; but he only put out his hand for the sugar-bowl, she hastened to hand it to him, he helped himself to another spoonful for the dregs in his cup. He would keep silent if he wanted to, he could speak if he wished, it wasn’t up to her.” ~ The Pickup, Nadine Gordimer (12)

I was staying at a beach house rental this past summer for a multi-family holiday and noticed a small bookshelf shoved off in a corner of the dining room. I always enjoy looking—just looking mind you I certainly don’t need more books to read— but I am curious, pure objective curiosity, as to what books there may be in any given corner of the world. So I took a gander.

Choosing a book has a feel that is similar to a pickup, doesn’t it? Especially when one is just looking at a random take-one, leave-one type shelf. It was an odd and motley mix. An unpredictable mix of high brow and low brow “summer reading” fare. What catches my fancy and why is an internal mystery I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand. As I have matured I am only aware that I simple surrender to it—in love and books, it’s the same.

The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer is an extraordinary book. I’m still well under its fog. Whenever I get very involved in a work of fiction the feeling I have when I must turn the corner down and lay the book aside for a moment to deal with reality, is like coming back from another country, another realm.

This book, which concerns a South African woman, Julie, and an Arab man, Ibrahim, is a powerful account of the unaccountable intimacy between two people. Gordimer articulates by direct and indirect means, obscure and exact thoughts and language, the unexplainable attachment of two people—unexplainable to others, of course, but also to themselves. The story is told mostly from Julie’s perspective. The intensity of their difference: she a white woman, he an “illegal” from a poor Muslim village of an unnamed country highlights what is true in all relationships—the inescapable otherness of the beloved which occurs within the closed cocoon of a romantic relationship, a private sphere, alone and freestanding, within the outside world.

“Brooding in a bed in the dark has a kind of telepathy created by the contact of bodies when words have not been exchanged.” (187)

The story is beautiful, sensual, and oddly inevitable. The story follows the lovers from their pickup in South Africa to an unnamed desert of Ibrahim’s origin. I couldn’t think of any other way it could have ended—the ending being something of a beginning. There was a small chance of the man not acting so much like a man, but that was never going to happen, so the course upon which the novel struck at the end had to be.  And it leaves one feeling frustrated, resigned, and sad, while at the same time one surrenders to the romance, the unspoken parts, the fidelity to self, and trust in the other—and if not the other than the desert which stands for the stability of time and Nature, humbling us all, reminding us of our smallness in the face of its persistent, calm beauty. The book does not leave one thinking they can know how it all turns out, it only leaves one knowing it had to be this way.

“He gave his wife his smile, that of himself which was for this one: for her.” (155)

The Joy of Circles

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If ever there was a book that perfectly summed up the case for why I love books, [The Archimedes Codex] How a Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist by Reviel Netz and William Noel would be exhibit A. The reasons why, as points covered in this wonderfully entertaining read for bibliophiles and lovers of multidisciplinary fields in action, include, but are not limited to, the following:

  1. The book as a material object
  2. The book as a historical record
  3. The book as a conveyor of information
  4. The book as a technology
  5. The book as an advancer of technology

All this and more comes together in one. Noel and Netz take turns in the telling according to their areas of expertise. Noel, as Curator of Manuscripts at the Walters Museum in Baltimore was given the opportunity by the anonymous owner of the codex to steward the study of this famous palimpsest. Netz’s specialty is in ancient science, and so between the two we get a very through understanding and deconstruction (literally) of book provenance, structure (with forays into paper, ink, and binding), forgeries, conservation, and cutting-edge methods of reading the unreadable, as well as a brief history of Archimedes, his impact on the whole history of math and science, the differences between how math was approached in ancient Greece compared to our own age, and quite a bit of the actual math involved. For me, it was a thrilling read. History, science, math, literature, and book studies all in a single object—the most ubiquitous and under-rated technological wonder of them all: a humble book.

A palimpsest, for those not familiar with the term, is a document (in this case a codex, which is a book in our familiar form as opposed to a book in scroll form, say) which has been erased (in this case, scraped away off the parchment, as opposed to erased off of paper) and written over again. What looked like a simple prayer book, was actually written over several books of Archimedes. Of those Method survives in the palimpsest alone. No where else! What may seem to be an act of unforgivable folly—using Archimedes text as scrap paper! is the very thing that allowed its improbable survival. And so we are grateful.

The process of reading the Archimedes text underneath the prayer book (and to add extra fun to the challenge, a modern-day forgery of illuminated illustrations), is difficult difficult lemon difficult* not to mention painstaking. I will admit that I have at least a passing interest in rare books and book conservation, so the technical aspects of the work of uncovering the text was fascinating to read. But, I would think it interesting to any reader if for no other reason than to gain a better understanding and measure of respect for a book’s structure and material evolution (or de-evolution as is sometimes the case—I’m looking at you, acidic paper!)

But, fascinating too were the passages dedicated to Archimedes, his way of thinking, and enormous impact on science, in fact, some of the most sophisticated technology employed in the effort to read his text would not have been possible without his proofs and methods.

The revelations of Archimedes true intent in regard to the Stomachion, for instance, read like a mystery novel. The Archimedes Palimpsest, incredibly, has pushed back the historic timeline of when combinatorics were first thought to be robustly considered and developed. Combinatorics, I might add, had no practical use to Archimedes, and yet, without that particular field of mathematics, computers would not be possible and you would be sadly deprived of learning about this book from me. Full circle. Is there anything more satisfying?

*to randomly quote, as I am wont to do, the very funny film In the Loop

**Illustration from p 45 of [The Archimedes Codex] How a Medieval Prayer Book is Revealing the True Genius of Antiquity’s Greatest Scientist

A Drop in the River

IMG_0843The truly timeless tales are those that seem to be telling a localized story but are in fact about something greater, larger, universal. All stories are like a drop in the river of our humanity, but a really good story, to paraphrase Rumi, is not a drop in the river but is the whole river in a drop.

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces. Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two minds. I am not some misunderstood mutant from a comic book or horror movie, although some have treated me as such. I am simple able to see any issue from both sides.

Thus begins The Sympathizer by Viet Thang Nguyen. Generally, when I write a blog post, I am pretty skimpy on plot details. My logic is: if one hasn’t read the book, why spoil it? and if one has, why repeat or rephrase what was carefully rendered by the author’s own purposeful style and pace? What I like to record for the benefit of my memory as well as for, hopefully, any interested person’s benefit is the effect a book has on me.

Maybe it says more about me than I’d like, but I have to admit that my favorite kind of humor is gallows humor. The narrator of The Sympathizer is just the sort I like and the structure of the novel, in which the narrator is telling the story to one particular person, allows a gullible reader such as myself to feel an intimacy with him. He is amusing, has interesting tales to tell, and unique perspectives to share.

Nguyen, I am hardly the first person to report (he received a pulitzer among many other awards for this book, after all), has written a beautifully affecting novel. The novel begins at the fall of Saigon in 1975, a double agent, The Captain, tells his story in a tone that evinces both a sense of fatalism and chaotic happenstance. From his own heritage to the international conflict at play, nothing is simple, everything is its own opposite. That tension imbues, colors, and complicates everything. Nguyen’s style however, is light.

All this time I kept my gaze fixed on hers, an enormously difficult task given the gravitational pull exerted by her cleavage. While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilizations, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese may have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity (p 232).

The story weaves its web from the outside in. The sum is not seen until the very end. There is a clarity and power of message that I did not anticipate for at least the first 2/3 of the story, and that….sneakiness is a delight even while it leads to the greater theme which is heart-wrenchingly human, all too human.

Beauty is Lurking Everywhere

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“The most notable and revolutionary feature of Darwin’s theory of mate choice is that it was explicitly aesthetic. He described the evolutionary origin of beauty in nature as a consequence of the fact that animals had evolved to be beautiful to themselves.”
The Evolution of Beauty, Richard O. Prum

I once came across this wonderful sentence: “Beauty is lurking everywhere.” Damned if I know from where, but I latched onto the sentence, if not the author of the sentence, with a rare tenacity (at least as far as my mind’s usual light grip on factoids is concerned). If I was forced to guess I’d say Shakespeare…but given Shakespeare’s proclivity to produce delicious bon mots by the boat load, that feels like cheating—it’s like guessing a particular invention came from China.

I was prompted today to not be such a terrible blogger (it’s been about a year…) and get back to my purpose here which is to help me not forget all the books I read! And, as well,  make a good reading suggestion for others at the same time. What’s the fun of reading if you can’t share the fun?

So, back to beauty—Richard O. Prum’s fascinating book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—And Us asks the next logical question for a person who believes, as I do, that beauty is indeed lurking everywhere, and that question is: but why?

“Throughout the living world whenever the opportunity has arisen, the subjective experiences and cognitive choices of animals have aesthetically shaped the evolution of biodiversity. The history of beauty in nature is a vast and never-ending story.”

Prum focuses on Darwin’s book which followed Origin of the Species, Descent of Man. Darwin was not satisfied with the problem of beauty which his theory of natural selection could not adequately explain. The peacock’s gorgeous arrayment left Darwin feeling nauseated. Not because of the excessive pulchritude, but because those long ridiculous feathers can not really be much help in survival, not least of all of the fight or flight variety.

What is so wonderful about Prum’s book is his expertise in ornithology, his explanation of the null/ not null practice of data collection and how that suppresses a whole lot of data, scientific bias, as well as his promotion of the subversive nature of what Darwin was really getting at—female empowerment. At times the book feels like a feminist apologia. Why is beauty lurking all around us? Because the ladies like it like that.

“What was so radical about this idea was that it positioned organisms—especially female organisms—as active agents in the evolution of their species. Unlike natural selection, which emerges from external forces in nature, such as competition, predation, climate, and geography, acting on the organism, sexual selection is a potentially independent, self-directed process in which the organisms themselves (mostly female) were in charge. Darwin describes females as having a “taste for the beautiful” and an “aesthetic faculty.” He described males as trying to “charm” their mates…..”

Because this theory, Darwin’s theory of the evolution of beauty, is so hard for some to accept as it throws into disarray the parameters of how evolution functions (fittest, Yes! but prettiest too!), the final third of Prum’s book is more speculative than he, or I, would prefer. But it at least leads in a direction of discovery that says damn implicit/explicit misogyny! our evolution is fascinating, complicated, and positively dripping in implications whether some might like what is revealed or not! Prum is not afraid to apply facts and humor in order to recuperate Darwin’s controversial ideas in the service of science. And I like it like that.

Meanwhile…

IMG_0566.jpgIt’s been a while. It may be more still while I re-orient, re-work, re-read, and re-assess the fast-moving parts of my life. Meanwhile I read. And bake, of course.

Italo Svevo’s Zeno’s Conscience was an amusing look into a man’s account of his own life ironically lacking in much ‘conscience’ but instead, full of complaints, finger-pointing, and laments all culminating in the throwing-off of his psychoanalysis which he declares a dismal failure even “after having practiced it faithfully for six whole months!” (exclamation mark, mine). He is, “worse off than before” (402). The examined life, it would appear, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

Translated by William Weaver, Zeno’s Conscience was originally written in 1923. As I read it I thought of Giuseppe Berto’s, incubus written in 1964 which I read last summer while in Rome. It’s nearly inconceivable to me that Berto did not know of Svevo’s book given the similarities. But, then again, we humans are so much alike in our obsessive monitoring of our psyches—which sounds bad until you consider the alternative group of humans who lack any sense of, or responsibility towards, self-reflection and contemplation. At least the former group is trying.

At any rate, thinking of Berto brought me back to Rome (I have always had the habit of connecting my memories to the book or books I was reading at the time). Coincidentally, my reflections on my travels to Rome this past summer were recently published in Smith College’s magazine, Global Impressions. I include the link below.

Although I haven’t written much lately here, I haven’t completely gone away. But the thing I always loved about keeping a blog is that there is no pressure. One can write, one can read—or not. It’s just a pleasurable thing to be obligation-free in relation to my most pleasurable habit: reading.

https://sophia.smith.edu/blog/impressions/2017/03/08/word-on-the-street/