Saturday, September 16, 2023

Even More Not Reading

Yet another book for the not-reading report.  I made it 55 pages into George Eliot’s novel Silas Marner.  And I’m done.  It’s not because I don’t like Eliot.  I enjoyed The Mill on the Floss, Middlemarch, and Adam Bede.  The writing is deft and often lovely.

For example, I offer this quote:  “All cleverness, whether in the rapid use of that difficult instrument the tongue, or in some other art unfamiliar to villagers, was in itself suspicious:  honest folk, born and bred in a visible manner, were mostly not overwise or clever—at least not beyond such a matter as knowing the signs of the weather; and the process by which rapidity and dexterity of any kind were acquired was so wholly hidden, that they partook of the nature of conjuring.” (p. 12)  It’s well-observed and clearly expressed.


Or this one, on the village of Raveloe and its culture:  “Raveloe lay low among the bushy trees and the rutted lanes, aloof from the currents of industrial energy and Puritan earnestness:  the rich ate and drank freely, accepting gout and apoplexy as things that ran mysteriously in respectable families, and the poor thought that the rich were entirely in the right of it to lead a jolly life; besides, their feasting caused a multiplication of orts, which were the heirlooms of the poor.”  (p. 36-37)


So why am I not finishing?  I don’t like the characters.  Silas is a sad old miser, disappointed in love and faith.  The local squire’s sons are disagreeable fellows.  No one is going to come to a good end and I just don’t want to read through it.


Wednesday, September 06, 2023

More Not-Reading

Another not-reading report.  Life is short, so I should only read books that I enjoy.  Also, when I move books from the to-read shelf, that means more room for other books.  This particular edition of Plutarch’s Lives of Illustrious Men is certainly very pretty.  It claims to be “Translated from the Greek by John Dryden and Others.”  Who those others might be:  no idea.  I read about 200 pages before I gave up on it.

There were things I did like about the portion I read.  I enjoyed the historiographical nature of the writing, in which Plutarch says, “So-and-so says his father was this guy, but some other reports say it was this other guy, and we can’t entirely discount the notion that he was in fact the son of some god or other.” 


In the introductory biographical note about Plutarch himself, I marked this passage for my commonplace book:  “The treasures he acquires of this kind he secured by means of a commonplace-book, which he constantly carried about with him…” (p. xiii).  The recursiveness of copying this into my commonplace book amuses me.


That same biographer goes off on something of a rant in the following paragraph:  “We shall more readily enter in the belief that Plutarch collected his materials chiefly from conversation, when we consider in what manner, and on what subjects, the ancients used to converse.  The discourse of people of education and distinction in those days was somewhat different from ours.  It was not on the powers or pedigree of a horse—it was not a match of travelling between geese and turkeys—it was not on a race of maggots, started against each other on the table, when they first came to day-light from the shell of a filbert—it was not by what part you may suspend a spaniel the longest without making him whine—it was not on the exquisite finesse, and the highest manoevres of man.  The old Romans had no ambition for attainments of this nature.” (p. xiii)


It was instructive to note that the gulf between the haves and the have-nots has been problematic for a long time, as noted in the life of Solon:  “And the disparity of fortune between the rich and the poor, at that time, also reached its height; so that the city seemed to be in a truly dangerous condition, and no other means for freeing it from disturbances and settling it, to be possible but a despotic power.  All the people were indebted to the rich; and either they tilled their land for their creditors, paying them a sixth part of the increase, and were, therefore, called Hectemorii and Thetes, or else they engaged their body for the debt, and might be seized, and either sent into slavery at home, or sold to strangers; some (for no law forbade it) were forced to sell their children, or fly their country to avoid the cruelty of their creditors; but eh most part the bravest of them began to combine together and encourage one another to stand to it, to choose a leader, to liberate the condemned debtors, divide the land, and change the government.” (p. 135-136)


I also liked the opportunity of exploring a culture so different and yet so related to my own.  This is one of those books that were part of the classical education and thus formed, in some part, all those dead white men who created the world we’re soaking in.


That same culture, though, ended up being the problem.  I knew about the rape of the Sabine women as just a name.  Reading the account was… difficult.  Basically, the proto-Romans were a bunch of guys.  They kidnapped and raped the Sabine women because, hey, guys need girls.  Time went on, and the Romans and the Sabines (the men who were left behind, presumably) got ready to have a war.  At which time, the raped women got between the combatants and said to the Sabines, “Look, you didn’t rescue us when these guys made off with us.  We’ve tried to make the best of it and we’re now raising families with them.  Don’t kill our husbands.”  They said to the Romans, “Hey, wasn’t it enough to steal us from our homes and families, to rape us and all?  Do you need to kill our fathers and brothers, too?”  So the Sabines and the Romans made peace.  And Plutarch is like, “Hey, these women were awesome!  Worth stealing!  Five stars!  Would rape again!”  (Obviously, I paraphrase.)


Ultimately, the so very patriarchal and so very classist tone wore me down.  I had enough.  So I stopped reading.


Friday, September 01, 2023

August 2023 Reading

As is typical, I didn’t get much reading done in August.  I finished three books, two nonfiction and one fiction.

Quentin Bell’s biography of his aunt, Virginia Woolf, was a good read.  The book obviously tells about Woolf’s life, but it also draws a portrait of an era.  Woolf herself comes across as enchanting and flawed and ultimately tragic.  Bell is an engaging writer willing to tell complex tales and to look with reasonable detachment at the deeds of his own family members.  My copy of the book itself was a score from a little free library and it fractured in half.  I may try to find a whole copy to keep (or just keep this one, rubber-banded together, on my shelf.).


My church book group is reading Falling Upward:  A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr.  As a group, I think we’re on chapter 3, but I finished the whole thing because that’s how I roll.  This is my first exposure to Rohr.  I came in with high expectations, which may have been a mistake.  I liked his ideas, but his writing made it challenging to tease out what those were.  The book is making for good discussion, though, so on the whole I’d call it a success.


The best book I read this month, however, is A.J. Glasser’s Witch King’s Oath.  (Obligatory note:  I know and love A.J.  She is an awesome human.  Go buy her book.  I mean it.)  The book is a complex fantasy novel with lyrical, liquid prose.  The characters stick in the mind long after reading.  A.J. has created a fascinating world and I can hardly wait for the next book!


August total:  3

Summer total:  12

YTD total:  55


Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Be careful when you ask for a sign...

There’s this guy.  He’s really tall and stiff.  We have a yearly thing, it’s fiery, and then no contact for months.  Our Facebook relationship status would be “It’s Complicated.”  His name is Burning Man.

It’s complicated for a lot of reasons.  I am, at best, a reluctant Burner.  When I talk to the people I love who are enthusiastic, card-carrying, life-membership Burners, I will agree that it can be an amazing experience.  The art is phenomenal.  Many of the interactions that happen there are deep and meaningful and unusual.  People hug more and express their joy more than in the default world.


But there are also plenty of people there highly invested in their own coolness.  I don’t need another middle school experience, thanks.  While the organization is working on this, it is also mostly white and pretty elitist—those tickets are expensive and that’s just the initial hurdle since that doesn’t touch the cost of all the stuff a person needs to live there for a week or more. 


And then there is the place itself.  Oh my goodness, does the playa hate me.  If I have a natural habitat, I can absolutely guarantee it is not a prehistoric lakebed at altitude with alkaline dust, hideous windstorms, excessive heat, surprising cold, and occasional flash-flooding.  I am not a person with a lot of big fears, but one that I do not seem to be able to overcome is my fear of high winds.  When coupled with whiteout from dust, the wind leaves me a quivering mass of panic.


The friends I have there, despite them being lovely humans who bring me joy, are not enough to make me go.  Neither is the thought-provoking and beautiful art.  I go because Burning Man is Brent’s happy place.  I go because it is important to my marriage.


Let me digress a moment:  my first Burn happened about a month after I started dating Brent.  I had basically no idea what I was getting into.  I didn’t have enough time off work to go for more than the weekend, but off I went on Friday.  By Saturday, despite my best efforts (and no, I wasn’t even drinking alcohol), I was so dehydrated that I passed out.  I woke up in the med tent—before the current fancy Emergency Services Department and the Rampart hospital and everything—with an IV.  I got four liters of fluids pumped back into me.  While I was incapacitated, Brent had sprung into action to sort out how he was going to take me home, how to get my car home, and every other detail.  He took amazing care of me.  This is one of the reasons I married him in the first place.


This year, Burning Man was not doing my marriage any favors.  I don’t fully get why, and I’m not going to go into the parts I do get.  I was struggling.  Because Brent and I both volunteer for Emergency Services, he as the IT manager for ESD Communications and as an ESD dispatch supervisor and me as an admin, we tend to spend the first part of my time there doing our respective jobs.  We planned to go do the Burning Man thing on Wednesday (that’s today) before I headed home on Thursday.  But on Tuesday, I arranged to meet up with some other friends to go explore the city.


At first, all was well on Tuesday.  I like riding my bike across the playa.  I met up with my dear friends.  We set off to explore.  And then the wind rose and the dust came.  We were out in the middle of the playa, away from the city, and we could barely see each other.  Each time the weather would clear a bit, we’d move to another large piece of art, taking shelter at landmarks until we could see again.  I breathed deeply, as best I could.  My friends took good care of me.  But there was nothing for it; I had to suck it up and deal.  Eventually, we felt our way back to the city itself, where the structures blocked enough of the wind that it wasn’t a whiteout.  My blood pressure came down a bit.  I breathed easier.  But I still felt shaky enough that I wanted to make my way back to camp.


We biked along slowly, taking in the scenery.  I was given a really cool pin by a passing art car.  I stopped to show it to my friends and a large plywood sign toppled over on me, hitting me in the head, hard.  My friends stayed with me, of course, but also got more help.


Emergency Services to the rescue!  One of the ambulance units came and checked me out.  Other folks got on the radio and found Brent, who was doing an on-call shift for IT.  He came and got me.  I cried a lot, both because my head hurt and because the whole thing had been so stressful and scary.


(I am, obviously, not dead.  I don’t have any bad concussion symptoms.  I have been checked by medics and by a nurse friend in camp.  I have a big old bump on my head and I hurt all over, but I’ll live.)


Brent took me back to camp, cleaned me up, and tucked me in to rest.  When I woke up, again, he had figured out how he was going to take me home, how to get my car home, and all the other details.


I am safely home now.  I am clean.  Brent loves me.  And the playa has told me not to let the door hit me in the… head… on my way out.


Tuesday, August 01, 2023

Not Reading Report

Sometimes I decide not to finish reading a book.  Today was one of those days.  This book (all right:  it’s two books, containing four volumes of one work) is The Life of George Washington by Washington Irving.  It has been on my shelf for years and for as long as I can remember it was on my parents’ bookshelf before that.  I assume it was there because the bindings are pretty; some of the pages are still uncut.

I made it about forty pages into the first volume.  The actual prose is pleasant.  Irving tells a good story, which is not surprising from the man who gave us “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  (Incidentally, he also first associated the name Gotham with New York and the Knickerbocker for whom the Knicks are named was his creation.)


The tone is more hagiography than biography.  I was willing to deal with that for a while, but then there was a totally uncritical comment about a manager of a property living only with such negros as necessary to run the place and then I gave up somewhere in the middle of a bunch of bad faith negotiations with various Native American peoples as a way of promoting English colonization instead of French colonization.  I just can’t stomach the basic racism and genocide at the core of our national history.


Wikipedia informs me that Irving’s style of biography (he also wrote biographys of Mohammed and Christopher Columbus) is now called “romantic history,” a mixture of fact and fictional elements to give the story more punch.  He is the source of the mistaken idea that Europeans before Columbus believed the earth to be flat, so I’d say he was pretty darn influential.  In spite of this, the factual parts of his work seem to have held up to modern scrutiny, more or less.  To me, it reads like the kind of biography of heroes given to fourth graders but with better writing:  no warts here!


I expect I could learn something if I plowed through the rest of the pages, but life is short and I’d rather read something better, something that did not gloss over the difficult parts.


Monday, July 31, 2023

July 2023 Reading

We made it through July!  Summer reading continues to be slower than I’d like, but I did finish five books, two nonfiction and three fiction.

Nonfiction first.  America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis is a great book.  I had read excerpts from it with a group of people at church and wanted to read the whole thing.  It outlines, for people of faith in particular (although other people may also be interested), why we have a moral obligation to dismantle the structures and practices of racism.  The history many of us learned in school was the history of colonizers and conquerors, leaving out the bits about genocide and cultural and literal imperialism.  And racism is continuing today, not just in rednecks who wave Confederate flags, but in the persistent results of biased systems that have deprived people of color of wealth, safety, and often their very lives.  I will be writing more about this book in the coming weeks, so I won’t go into huge detail right now, but let me just strongly suggest:  read it.


I continue to work my way through all of Ursula K. Le Guin’s books.  This month I read Words Are My Matter, which is a collection of her nonfiction work, including essays, transcripts of talks, and book reviews.  Her ideas are always interesting and her prose is lovely.  Check it out.


On to fiction.  I have enjoyed Naomi Novik’s work for a long time now—I remember reading the Temeraire books out loud with T. back when we still read together regularly.  This month, I read a more recent trilogy of hers, including A Deadly Education, The Last Graduate, and The Golden Enclaves.  Ultimately, I liked them.  It took a while, though, because the protagonist is really irritating.  As the stories unfold, we learn more about her and we understand why she is so difficult, but she is really hard to like for a good long while.  The world of the books is unusual and interesting.  I like how magic works in it.  Perhaps because of the other reading I’ve been doing, I found the themes particularly compelling.  What happens when a system is founded on something terrible?  What is the cost?  How do haves and have-nots survive?  I won’t go plot-spoilery here, but those questions permeate the action.


July total:  5

Summer total to date:  9

Year to date total:  52


Friday, June 30, 2023

June 2023 Reading

Every year I forget:  summer is not a time when I get stuff done.  I just don’t.  Reading is no exception.  I read four books in June.

One of those books was a picture book.  It’s called Strong by Rob Kearney and Eric Rosswood.  It is an autobiographical picture book about the only openly gay professional strongman in the world (according to the book flap copy).  Rob, despite his obvious strength, felt he needed to hide himself in dark and subdued clothes for competing.  In the story, he learns that to be truly strong, he also needs to show his true, bright, colors.  It’s a very sweet book and I love it.  I mean, what’s not to like about a book about someone who loves weights and wants to be himself?


I read two nonfiction books.  One of them was left over from my year of butterflies.  Johannes Goedaert wrote Of Insects in the seventeenth century, and it was translated into English in 1682.  The editor of the English edition is pleasantly snarky about Goedaert’s over-reliance on his art and his laziness in describing the colors of the various insects he observed.  Much of the book is about butterflies, but there are also descriptions of the lifecycles of various flies, grasshoppers, and the like.  There are occasional places where Goedaert lapses into the error of spontaneous generation and he doesn’t fully understand the way parasites that lay eggs in caterpillars work, but it was an interesting read nonetheless.  I’m glad I read it, but wouldn’t exactly recommend it.


The other nonfiction book has been on my shelf even longer.  Yoga:  The Art of Transformation edited by Debra Diamond is a fancy, coffee-table-style book that looks at various pieces of art depicting yoga or yogic practices.  The pictures, not surprisingly, are fabulous.  The text is informative, portraying the complicated history of yoga as it has been interpreted through time.  I liked it, but did not find it to be a serious page-turner.


Finally, I read one fiction book.  I don’t always love Neal Stephenson’s books, but I do always find them thought-provoking.  Termination Shock is both a book I very much enjoyed and one that made me think.  The opening sequence made me laugh out loud.  A novel about climate change seems like a hard project, but likeable characters and compelling events do the trick to make it hard to put down.  (Brent is currently reading it and liking it, too, and we don’t always enjoy the same books; it speaks to the appeal that two such divergent readers are both liking it.).  Highly recommend.


June total:  4 books

Summer total to date:  4 books

Year to date total:  47 books


June 2023 Flash Lit 10 - By the Bye

“By-the-bye, what became of the baby?” said the Cat. “I’d nearly forgotten to ask.”

“It turned into a pig,” Alice quietly said, just as if it had come back in a natural way.

“I thought it would,” said the Cat, and vanished again.  Alice in Wonderland, Chapter 6




Larry looked into Portia’s little eyes and smiled.  She grunted back at him, which was all she ever really did, being a pig.  But he thought it was an affectionate grunt at any rate.


He made sure she had enough water in her trough and scratched between her ears.  She leaned into his hand with all her weight.  “Steady on, baby,” he said.  “You’ll knock me down!”


Portia grunted again and Larry thought it sounded like a chuckle.


He took off his hat to let the breeze cool his head for a moment and rubbed a hand across the few stubbly hairs left on his scalp.  Portia butted up against his legs again and he resumed scratching.


“I know you’re lonely, baby, now that Everett is gone,” Larry told her.  Everett, the old boar, had died over the winter of extreme old age.  Larry knew he should get another pig to keep Portia company, but he just couldn’t face coming to the pen every morning and finding a different porcine face looking back at him.


It would be like coming into the kitchen and seeing a woman who wasn’t Josie standing at the sink.  He’d rather see the space where Josie should be.


Portia decided she’d had enough scratches and trundled over to the mud puddle to cool herself off.  She flopped down with a grunt that this time sounded like satisfaction.


Larry, released, trudged back to the house, shucked off his wellies, and washed up before making himself a cup of tea.  He sat at the kitchen table with its faded red checked cloth and tried to remember the shape of Josie, but he couldn’t summon it.


It had come to this, he thought.  I talk to my pig and I can’t remember my own wife’s outline.


The phone rang.  It was Larry’s niece Christy, who called every so often mostly, Larry thought, to make sure that Larry was still alive.


“By the by,” she said, after telling him all about her kids’ soccer games, her husband’s new job, and the ins and outs of trying to find someone to help out in her gift boutique, “I heard that Chas Bond is looking to buy a farm.  If you’re interested in selling, I mean.  He’d even take the pig.”


“Absolutely not,” Larry said.


“You treat that pig like it’s your baby,” Christy said.

“She is,” Larry answered, and hung up.