Tag Archives: reviews

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

Eschew Surplusage

IMG_1153Rule number 14. Eschew Surplages. This comes, as is natural, after rule number 13. Use the right word, not its second cousin. The man is droll. Mark Twain’s essay Fenimore Copper’s Literary Offenses, found in A Subtreasury of American Humor outlines eighteen of the “nineteen rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction- some say twenty-two” (519) of which he claims Cooper’s Deerslayer egregiously violates.

3. They require that the personage in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others. But this detail has often been overlooked in the Deerslayer tale (520 Twain).

Possibly one of the funniest scathing reviews I have ever read. And I say that as someone who liked the Deerslayer, in fact I read the whole series (many years ago) back to back. However, it is not as if Twain’s criticism doesn’t ring true – that’s what makes his ribbing so hilarious.

A favorite one was to make a moccasined person tread in the tracks of the moccaisined enemy, and thus hide his own trail. Cooper wore out barrels and barrels of moccasins in working that trick (521 Twain).

That Cooper gets the details wrong or does not attach himself to working out the engineering or logistical problems of his tales with any fidelity to logic drives Twain a bit nuts.

The difference between a Cooper Indian and the Indian that stands in front of the cigar-shop is not spacious. The scow episode is really a sublime burst of invention; but it does not thrill, because the inaccuracy of the details throws a sort of air of fictitiousness and general improbability over it (525 Twain).

I find myself drawn to humor writing this time of year. A semi-conscious attempt to thwart the faux-holiday cheer that does nothing but strengthen my cynical heart, crowding out that other kind of heart one wants to foster. No, better that I search for some genuine joy.  That is how I have found myself reading  A Sub-Treasury of American Humor  edited by E.B. and Katherine White. I made the near fatal error of starting with Dorothy Parker’s Glory in the Daytime– she is funny in a “Oh Christ, get me a cocktail to laugh my sorrows into” kind of way, and not really what I was going for. But, I couldn’t help myself, Miss Parker or, as I like to call her- Our Lady of Cynical Hearts, holds an abiding appeal as my patron saint…

Miss Noyes was full of depths and mystery, and she could talk with a cigarette still between her lips. She was always doing something difficult, like designing her own pajamas, or reading Proust, or modeling torsos in plasticine (75 Parker).

Let’s not even talk about how the story ends.

Mark Twain, in the Critic At Work section of the book is the sort of writing that will cause one to break out into laughter all day long as his barbs circulate through the brain.

A work of art? It has no invention; it has no order, system, sequence, or result; it has no life-likeness, no thrill, no stir, no seeming of reality […] its humor is pathetic; its pathos is funny; its conversations are – oh! indescribable; its love-scenes odious; its English a crime against the language.
Counting these out, what is left is Art. I think we must all admit that (530 Twain).

The Whites have compiled nearly 800 pages of humorous diversions. Hallelujah. I’m ready to face December.

Tragedy in a Cup of Joe

“serenity now: insanity later.”

After a stressful series of errands to run and an hour to kill before I had to go to the library to meet my son, I went to a little cafe to sit for a moment: actually it was only after I was anxiously and studiously weighing the expenditure, indulgence, extravagance  and a voice finally screamed at me in my head GO HAVE A CUP OF COFFEE AND A COOKIE FOR CHIRST’S SAKE, JESSICA! that I wearily drove there.

I had forgot earlier in the day that I was going to meet my son so had already been to the library to pick up a few plays that we are reading for our book group. I brought one of the plays in with me to read, my choices were Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Euripide’s Medea, or Sophocles’ Oedipus. I choose Oedipus because it was the newest most handsomest book. These are all stories everyone is familiar with, but it is interesting to read or re-read them. David R. Slavitt’s translation was a crisp, clip of a read. The first half seemed to go something like this:

Oedipus: Tiresias, prophet man, tell me who killed Laius.
Tiresias: No sir.
Oedipus: You better tell me right now.
Tiresias: No way.
Oedipus: Wow, you are seriously pissing me off.
Tiresias: Never the less…
Oedipus: Tell me immediatly or I will banish you!
Tiresias: Go right ahead, I didn’t even want to come here.

And so on. Oedipus tries to get his wife Jocasta involved, but she wisely sides with Tiresias and then in a flash of understanding tries in earnest to get him to drop his inquiry. It’s all very tragic as a Greek tragedy should be I suppose – torn hair, gnashing teeth, eyes poked out: a bloody mess.

I don’t know, maybe my formative years were unduly influenced by books such as Hyemeyohsts Storm’s Seven Arrows and John Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire, (both unusual stories of consenting adult incest) but I just wanted to say to Oedipus and Jocasta, “Relax. You didn’t know. How can the sin of incest be a sin if there was no intent anyway? Perhaps going forward, you have some issues to work out, but hey, your kids all seem fine: as Fezik asks in The Princess Bride– ‘Doesn’t that you make you happy?’ No need to torture yourselves. Yes, you killed your father, but the crime was murder not really patricide. Come on people, letter of the law verses spirit, everybody chill out.”
This is probably why I don’t write fiction. Then again, I can make my own little Greek drama out of purchasing a cup of coffee….