Meredy's 2017 Reading Journal
This topic was continued by Meredy's 2018 Reading Journal.
Join LibraryThing to post.
This is a continuation of my 2016 reading journal:
Welcome to my ongoing reading record, and thank you for your interest. I've been lagging badly with my reviews during 2016 but will try to do better this year.
There are no spoilers in my reviews.
Solid star (★) = 1 star. Open star (☆) = ½ star. Post references are links. Reviews are posted on the works pages as well as in this thread, and I'm tickled to death when someone gives me a little thumb now and then.
Current fast-track read:
Death Is a Lonely Business, by Ray Bradbury
• Look Homeward, Angel, by Thomas Wolfe (1929), 1/20/2017; 508 dense pages (★★★★☆)
• Over My Dead Body (Nero Wolfe 7), by Rex Stout (1940), 1/26/2017; 257 pages (★★★☆)
• Underground Airlines, by Ben H. Winters (2016), 1/29/2017; 326 pages (★★★★)
• Where There's a Will (Nero Wolfe 8), by Rex Stout (1940), 2/3/2017; 236 pages (★★★)
• The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters (2012), 2/10/2017; 316 pages (★★★☆)
• Mr. Standfast, by John Buchan (1919), 2/19/2017; 324 pages (★★★☆)
• Oreo, by Fran Ross (1974), 2/24/2017; 230 pages (★★★★)
• Countdown City, by Ben H. Winters (2013), 2/28/2017; 316 pages (★★★☆)
• The Silent History, by Eli Horowitz et al. (2014), 3/1/2017 (read aloud, 5 months); 528 pages (★★☆)
• World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters (2014), 3/8/2017; 316 pages (★★★☆)
• The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, by Emily Esfahani Smith (2017), 3/16/2017; 275 pages (★★★)
• Lorna Doone, by R.D. Blackmore (1869), 3/17/2017; 700 pages (★★★★)
• Black Orchids (Nero Wolfe 9), by Rex Stout (1941), 3/22/2017; 192 pages (★★★)
• Old Age: A Beginner's Guide, by Michael Kinsley (2016), 3/25/2017; 160 pages (★★☆)
• Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper (2017), 4/5/2017; 262 pages + backmatter (=300) (★★★)
• Witches of Lychford, by Paul Cornell (2015), 4/10/2017; 144 pages (★★)
• The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World, by Greg King (2013), 5/1/2017; 293 pages + backmatter (=433) (★★★★)
• Don't Breathe a Word, by Jennifer McMahon (2011), 5/7/2017; 464 pages (★★★☆)
• The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, by Joshua Hammer (2016), 5/13/2017; 247 pages + backmatter (=299) (★★★★)
• Outliers: The Story of Success, by Malcolm Gladwell (2011), 5/17/2017 (read aloud, 2 months); 285 pages + backmatter (=309) (★★★)
• Russia: What Everyone Needs to Know, by Timothy J. Colton (2016), 5/25/2017; 240 pages + backmatter (=267) (★★★)
• The Silent Speaker (Nero Wolfe 11), by Rex Stout (1946), 5/29/2017; 271 pages (★★★☆)
• Not Quite Dead Enough (Nero Wolfe 10), by Rex Stout (1944), 6/1/2017; 187 pages (★★★); includes Booby Trap
• 1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed, by Eric H. Cline (2014), 6/9/2017; 179 pages + backmatter (=241) (★★★★)
• Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman (2017), 6/28/2017 (read aloud, 6 weeks); 283 pages + backmatter (=293) (★★★☆)
• Too Many Women (Nero Wolfe 12), by Rex Stout (1947), 6/26/2017; 192 pages (★★★)
• The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966/2016), 6/29/2017; 396 pages + frontmatter + backmatter (=442) (★★★★☆)
• The Wrong Box, by Robert Louis Stevenson & Lloyd Osbourne (1889), 7/3/2017; 142 pages (★★★)
• Standard Deviation, by Katherine Heiny (2017), 7/16/2017; 321 pages (★★★★)
• Philosophy of Language, by William P. Alston (1964), 7/26/2017; 113 pages, including backmatter (★★★★)
• The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, by Arundhati Roy (2017), 7/29/2017; 451 pages (★★★☆)
• The Silent Corner, by Dean R. Koontz (read aloud), abandoned 8/23/17 at 47%
• The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, by Frances FitzGerald (2017), 8/29/2017; 636 pages + backmatter (= 740) (★★★★☆)
• Tragedy at Law, by Cyril Hare (1942), 9/4/2017; 310 pages (★★★)
• And Be a Villain (Nero Wolfe 13), by Rex Stout (1948), 9/11/2017; 247 pages (★★★☆)
• Midwinter Break, by Bernard MacLaverty (2017), 9/17/2017; 243 pages (★★★★)
• The Rosetta Man, by Claire McCague (read aloud), abandoned 9/27/17 at 51%
• The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry (2016); 422 pages (★★★☆)
• The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, by H.P. Lovecraft (★★★☆)
• On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers: abandoned
• Dangerous Days, by Mary Roberts Rinehart (★★★☆)
• The A.B.C. Murders, by Agatha Christie (1935); 207 pages (★★★)
• My Journey by God's Design, by Sheila McCrea-MacCallum (2017), 11/10/2017; 147 pages (NR)
• Citizen Tom Paine, by Howard Fast (1945), 1/14/2017; 341 pages (★★★★☆)
• A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power, by Paul Fischer (2015), 11/15/2017; 339 pages & backmatter = 369 (★★★★☆)
• Trouble in Triplicate (Nero Wolfe 14), by Rex Stout (1945), 11/20/2017; 223 pages (★★★)
• The Second Confession (Nero Wolfe 15), by Rex Stout (1949), 11/27/2017; 240 pages (★★★☆)
• The Nakano Thrift Shop, by Hiromi Kawakami (2017), 11/29/2017 (read aloud; 8 weeks); 224 pages (★★★)
• Three Doors to Death (Nero Wolfe 16), by Rex Stout (1950), 12/4/2017; 240 pages (★★★)
• Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, by Karen Dawisha (2014), 12/8/2017; 350 pages + backmatter = 445 (★★★★☆)
• In the Best Families (Nero Wolfe 17), by Rex Stout (1950), 12/12/2017; 256 pages (★★★☆)
• The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, by H.P. Lovecraft (1927/1943), 12/13/2017 (★★★☆)
• A Book of Escapes and Hurried Journeys, by John Buchan (1922), 12/20/2017 (★★★)
• The Three Strangers, by Thomas Hardy (1922), 12/21/2017 (★★★)
• Death Is a Lonely Business, by Ray Bradbury (1985), 12/29/2017 (★★★★)
Just stopping by to wish you a Happy New Year with many enjoyable books in the future to tantalise you!
I hope this year will be easier on you...happy new year, and happy reading, Meredy.
Happy new year. Following along as usual, and sending all my best wishes for the year.
Wishing you all the best in 2017, for reading and in life. I'm looking forward to following you again!
Taking my seat at the ringside for 2017. Wishing you all the best for 2017.
Oh here you are! Somehow I lost you last year in the flood of new reading threads. Doh!
Happy 2017 reading :) Excited to read about your literary adventures.
Hunters in the Dark (2015), by Lawrence Osborne (4 stars)
(an Early Reviewer review)
Six-word review: Naivete and randomness in mysterious Cambodia.
Hunters in the Dark is the story of Robert Grieve, a young Englishman on holiday in the Far East in the present decade. By a stroke of luck at the gaming tables, Robert parlays his few weeks in Bangkok into an open-ended sojourn in Cambodia. His ties to his parents, his girlfriend, and his job back home prove to be much weaker than he thought. In fact, he doesn't have a sense that he has much to lose if he lets them go; his life has been pretty empty so far:
The sweet bird of youth, in his case, had nowhere to perch and had not taken flight to begin with. His youth was a wingless dodo. One could go on and on and that bird would still not sing. (page 32)And now things seem to be happening to him, and he embraces them as they occur. Instead of returning home as planned, he follows an impulse to wander and explore, trusting that somehow his resources will suffice, supplemented as they may be by the kindness of strangers.
A fateful encounter with a seemingly affluent American who offers him hospitality turns the wheel of destiny for Robert. On his own in a country of alien sensibilities, where ghosts and omens seem genuine, where a dark cloud of genocidal history hangs over the people, Robert fails to anticipate what a mark his naivete represents to people who have learned through pain and privation things that he has never had to know.
This is a song of innocence and experience, with touches of the sublime. Lush description furnishes atmosphere so thick that it seems to fill the senses, often with a shadow of menace:
Near the reeds the water rustled against debris and the edge of moon lit the smooth, unctuous surface as it constantly shifted. All along its length the frogs sang at full throttle, a sinuous chorus that seemed to possess a relaxed relentlessness, and it served to calm slightly jangled nerves, the apprehension that for Robert always came with night. (page 45)The narrative moves slowly, like a wide, shallow river thick with reeds. Somehow the unpredictable and the inevitable coexist, not only intertwined but sometimes indistinguishable. For Robert, the course of events leads through deception, robbery, stolen identity, and abduction, alongside adventure and romance--not of the swashbuckling kind; more of the it-seemed-like-a-good-idea-at-the-time kind. Under the brooding clouds, heavy with tropical rain and jungle heat, Robert makes life-altering choices in a clueless way that reminds us how clueless we all are about the actual consequences of our actions. The uncertain, the unknown, and the unforeseen are more real than anything we expect.
I won't explain the title because the author explains it at the point in the text where he deems it relevant; but I will say that it is a figure of speech and not literally about hunting. I was anticipating a different sort of book from the title and from some very misleading back-cover text: "a chain of events--involving a bag of 'jinxed' money, a suave American, a trunk full of heroin..." and "a sophisticated game of cat and mouse...." This led me to think I was heading into an action novel with B-movie effects featuring some sort of adversarial interaction between a Bond-like protagonist and the agents of some criminal enterprise. In fact there's no sophisticated game, no criminal organization, and, so far as I can tell, no trunk full of heroin. I suspect that the back-cover copy writer didn't read the whole book.
The author may not be (is not, I hope) responsible for the jacket copy, but there were some irritating lapses that led me to my favorite refrain: where was the editor? For instance, he refers more than once to Vishnu the destroyer. In the Hindu trinity, Vishnu is the preserver and Shiva is the destroyer. Osborne says that Pol Pot, the leader of the genocidal Khmer Rouge, was a good student in Paris, but the many sources I have read over the years describe him as an indifferent or poor student who had to leave his school for failing grades and who wrote C papers on politics and economy. The author also refers twice to someone's recuperating something he's lost or left behind, but the word is recoup. It's not short for "recuperate," which means to recover in the sense of healing, not regaining possession.
For the story, the characters, and the exotic setting, I would normally rate this novel at 3½ stars, which is a good score in my ranking system. I've given it an extra half star for the intensely moody, evocative language, the authentic-sounding revelations of decidedly non-Western cultural attitudes, and the psychological insights such as this:
Yet she also thought having dreams, the very concept of having a dream, was childish and absurd. Why did one need to have illusions like that in order to live? Living was not a project with a propaganda film driving it. It was pulled along by mystery and pleasure, not by a desire to have a big house in Neuilly by the time she was forty. (page 181)And this, about the child soldiers who slaughtered in the name of the Khmer Rouge during the 1975 revolution:
It was their extreme youth that explained their ecstatic sadism and skill at killing. It was a skill which only came from a knowing enjoyment, and therefore it was a youthful knowledge, a dementia of immaturity. (page 284)And this:
It was strange, indeed, how human beings liked to be taken places they didn't know. It was the impulse that lay behind a lot of otherwise inexplicable events. (page 264)This novel took me to places I didn't know. And it was a memorable journey.
>2 Meredy: love this entry. It reminds me of an old haiku:
five syllables here
seven more syllables here
are you satisfied?
>14 Meredy: Meredy that was a lovely review, beautifully written, effective in conveying a sense of the book.
Look Homeward, Angel is engaging, but is also one of the slowest books I have ever read and not abandoned. Most pages have too much on them. I'll be lucky to finish it this month. It's sort of like a literary version of "Where's Waldo?" I'm going to have to read half a dozen fast-moving escapist novels just to recover my balance. Too bad I'm all caught up with Harry Dresden.
The novel is, I think justly, considered an American classic, but in my opinion it has significant defects.
I was also shocked to see that the author used the adverb "bigly": "Moved, she laughed bigly, ironically" (page 308 in my copy). This is the first time I've ever written "OMG" in my reading journal, or, for that matter, anywhere; it's just not an expression or an abbreviation that I use. But nothing less was equal to the demands of this situation.
>17 Meredy: We have a friend, a retired English prof who lives in Asheville and conducts tours of Wolfe's home there. He says that LHA is a great novel, but you should skim the first fifty or sixty pages. Apparently Wolfe spilled so many beans on so many easily recognizable residents that he had to move away for a couple of years. Then people were upset that his next novel didn't include any such salacious details.
I took a bullet on Oreo two years ago, but at that time, for whatever reason, I had trouble getting into it. I'll have to give it another go some time. Thanks (I think) for the reminder.
>17 Meredy: So the President-Elect will be naming you as his Secretary for Culture and Language?
>20 pwaites: It isn't. No, no, no. (And >21 pgmcc:, all gods forbid.) I was horrified to meet it in this novel, as if that conferred some sort of legitimacy on it. I sincerely doubt that, if this was the word actually spoken twice during the recent presidential debates, it came there by some literary path; in fact, the very notion that the candidate might have used it argues against an expectation of implicit high literacy as a source.
But Wolfe is not exempt from my notebook treatment, even if it makes no difference. For one thing, he uses ostentatious words ostentatiously, as if, where a little saffron or clove might be good, a whole lot would be magnificently better.
So far I have counted nine instances of the word "inchoate," a word so conspicuous that I don't think it ought to be used twice in the same book.
inchoateSome of those uses are decidedly dubious: what on earth is a "wild, inchoate scream"? or how would "a white atom of inchoate fury...burst in him" if it's inchoate? Wolfe even construes it as an adverb, still more dubiously: someone "bent forward whining inchoately."
For another, Wolfe appears to be the source of a practice that I have deplored in other works--i.e., making an adverb of a color: "her broad, powerful nose, founded redly on her white face." Now, really, how can you do a thing in a yellow way or in a green manner? When I called this out in Natasha Pulley's The Watchmaker of Filigree Street ("purply"), just to cite one example, I had no idea that the author might have been taking tacit permission from Thomas Wolfe. Not that this exonerates her, but it does go a little way toward explaining where someone might get the notion that you can do this sort of thing to the English language. To me this is not poetic; rather, it's delinquent.
And I still have a good hundred and fifty pages to go.
For some reason, whenever I see the word "inchoate" I have a vision of fish spawning.
>22 Meredy: Entirely agree: inchoate twice in the same book requires a good reason. Nine times seems out of the question unless perhaps it is used as a name. The protagonist's dog? But then it would be capitalized, which is a wholly different thing.
>22 Meredy: From what I've read, Mr. Trump was really saying Big League, but the bigly itself is apparently an English word with an old pedigree.
>18 Meredy: I read and enjoyed Oreo a year or two ago when kidzdoc from the 75 books group lent it to me. I'll try and find what I said about it.
ETA : Found it
As promised, my latest commuting book was Oreo which was an excellent, highly entertaining read. It's the story of the daughter of a Jewish man and an African American woman who is raised by her maternal grandparents as her father left and her mother travels. When Oreo turns 15, her mother sends her on a quest to track down her father and find out "the secret of her birth". The book is structured around the myth of Theseus, and Oreo's adventures parallel the Greek hero's journey. This is essentially a tall tale, with larger than life characters, and is a satire on American society, culture and the notion of an "authentic" racial identity. Oreo claims and rejects aspects of her Jewish, Black and mainstream American heritage as she sees fit and feels free to exploit people's expectations and stereotypes when it's useful. The author peppers the narrative with Yiddish, African American dialects, advertising speak, popular song, slang, references to high and low culture and arts, equations, a menu, various diagrams, and plenty of puns. When the book was published it had almost no impact, and the excellent fore- and afterword put it in the context of its time (the 70s). At a time when Roots was a bestseller, this book satirized the search for racial identity and starred a heroine who revels in her mixed heritage. Ultimately, Oreo is unique, not African American, Jewish American or anything other than herself. One can't help rooting for her, in spite of the fact that the author has not tried to make her a realistic character, and cheer as she gets herself out of the trickiest situations though intelligence, guile and sometimes just kicking ass. I can see that this wouldn't be a book for everyone; the author is playing with concepts that many hold sacred, and in doing so she forces the reader to unpack, examine and criticise those ideas.
So far this month it's been nothing but Wolves: first Thomas and now Nero.
A few days ago I finally finished Look Homeward, Angel, and now I'm recovering with the seventh in Rex Stout's classic detective series, which I've been rereading in sequence while picking up the few I missed many years ago.
I'm working up to writing review comments about Angel, which kind of made me write funny afterward, in the same way that I start to talk a little funny after I've been bingeing on BBC dramas.
Glad to see you are revisiting Nero and company. I plan to visit them again this year as well.
After finishing the very absorbing Underground Airlines yesterday, I decided to take the easy route and continue my intermittent reread of the Nero Wolfe series.
Last night I began Where There's a Will, eighth in the series, published in 1940 and here reissued in 1992 with an introduction by Dean R. Koontz. It is an authentically yellowed, crumbly-paged, used mass market paperback that has been hanging around somewhere for 25 years and that I purchased last August from Amazon Marketplace.
Almost at once, I read something so astonishing that I came to a complete halt. I had to reread it five or six times and then copy it into my notebook, and I'm still rereading it.
Here it is, Koontz introduction, page viii, 1992 Bantam paperback edition, introduction copyright © 1992 by Dean R. Koontz:
Twenty years ago, when I was struggling to find my voice as a writer, I was reading five novels a week in addition to putting in full days at the typewriter. (We didn't have the great blessing of computers and word-processing software back then. But we didn't have freeway shootouts or Donald Trump, either, so it wasn't altogether a less appealing era.)Talk about your Easter eggs.
You can even see it for yourself, at least right now, if you use the "look inside" function on Amazon and page back to viii of the Bantam reprint edition.
Now, I didn't bring it up here to talk about politics. Heavens, no, not in the Green Dragon. This is just a comment on what I'm reading.
But it just made me wonder at the uncanny, even chilling, instincts of a culture-savvy author in 1992 to pick that of all examples as a way in which 1972 was more pleasant than 1992--and a way that he expected his audience to recognize without further explanation.
I don't think it was a prophecy. But it might have been a warning. He knew something, Dean Koontz. In 1992.
>29 Meredy: Maybe he achieved a certain prescience by reading five novels a week. I wonder what sorts of things they were, and what sort of reading he was doing. I would think reading for ideas about voice or other authorial techniques would take longer than recreational reading. Perhaps he just didn't sleep and thus achieved a particularly receptive state.
I enjoy eerie things like this. Thanks for sharing!
29> That's hilarious! I had a similar moment a few days ago when my business textbook from 2012 used him as an example of questionable business ethics.
>32 pwaites: Wow. I'm tempted to suggest gathering these things in another thread, outside the GD.
>33 Meredy: How's about a group called, "The Green Dragon Car Park". That is were people in the pub can take their arguments.
"Take it outside, pal!"
>34 pgmcc: There used to be a group called Outside (or some such) for that kind of discussion.
This is what catch-up looks like when I'm as far behind as I am. Fans of long, discursive, analytic reviews: thanks for your kind interest, and my apologies. For now I have to do what works. There's more to come later on.
Following are the first five of eleven quick takes. And eleven barely make a dent in the backlog.
The Three Musketeers (1844/1952), by Alexandre Dumas (Lord Sudley, trans.) (3½ stars)
Six-word review: Swashbuckling adventure of intrigue and swordplay.
In among the duels and melees, the politics and warfare of royalty versus religion, and the passing of notes to confidantes and traitors, there are numerous thoughtful passages to lend substance to this action melodrama. A Jesuit warns Aramis: "You're touching on the controversial subject of Free Will, which is a deadly snare." (page 325) And Aramis tells the hero of the piece: "'Take my advice, d'Artagnan: when you're in trouble, hide it. Silence is the only refuge of the unhappy. Don't let others into the secrets of your heart; prying folk feed on your tears as vampires feed on human blood.'" (page 332)
One chapter (page 696) actually begins: "It was a dark and stormy night." Wow!
I thought the novel seemed to peter out at the end, or maybe I just didn't understand the politics of switching sides. It seemed to cancel out the theme of loyalty that had permeated the story from the beginning. But it was a lively romance anyway, with very villainous villains.
The Heart Sutra (2004), by Red Pine (4 stars)
Six-word review: Enlightening explication of Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra.
"Emptiness means indivisibility." (page 77)
"...ignorance includes not only the absence of knowledge but also the presence of delusion" (page 110)
When I listen to dharma talks, I often feel as if I understood everything while the teacher was speaking, and afterward I don't remember anything. I just have a recollection of some momentary passing light. This is what the teacher wants, I think: I'm not supposed to hoard the words, much less take notes. Still, while reading this book I didn't even feel as if I were getting whatever I wasn't getting.
Still--still. Something may have seeped through.
Here's why I love Buddhism:
Fa-tsang says, "Although the absolute and provisional are both submerged, their two truths are permanently present. Although emptiness and existence are both denied, their one meaning shines forever. True emptiness has never not existed, but by means of existence it is distinguished from emptiness. Illusory existence has been empty from time without beginning, but by means of emptiness it is seen as existing. Because existence is an empty existence, it does not exist. And because emptiness is an existent emptiness, it is not empty. Emptiness which is not empty, does not stop being empty. And existence which does not exist, exists but not forever." (pages 69-70)
My Extraordinary Ordinary Life (2012), by Sissy Spacek, with Maryanne Vollers (3 stars)
Six-word review: Relatively uninteresting celebrity autobiography. (Four suffice.)
The number of celebrity bios I've read over time is probably still under a dozen. I've admired Sissy Spacek's acting, but her self-revelations, although more engaging than several others' (by a lot), is no award winner. Once again I think I'll wait a long while before I read another. I don't even know why I do this to myself.
Prey (2002), by Michael Crichton (3½ stars)
Six-word review: Clumsy, amateurish ending cancels suspenseful excitement.
The premise, essentially that of AI entities run amok, is a strong one. The social issue is a significant one and has been for several generations now: when high-tech developers focus on immediate goals (including financial ones) and damn the consequences, what is the real cost, and who pays?
On page 290 there is about as disgusting an image as I have ever encountered in fiction, namely, the sensation of stepping on or in the gelatinous corpse of one's former colleague.
The ending was pretty much of a letdown, mostly an infodump. Fie, Michael.
Free to Fall (2014), by Lauren Miller (3½ stars)
Six-word review: Moral choice in wired futuristic society.
Having only recently sworn off YA novels (after gagging over A Monster Calls), I wouldn't have picked up Free to Fall on anything less than the recommendation of my 30-year-old son. Since he's never been much of a reader, I got onto it right away.
It turned out that there was much more to it than I ever would have looked for in fiction aimed at the high school set, who seem to me, by and large, to be too illiterate for anything with this much substance. Indeed, it might even be considered ambitious by adult standards.
Here are some of its features. To elaborate on all of them would bog me down right now, so I'm settling for giving them a nod, mostly approving:
• conjunction of themes of free will, Fibonacci numbers, the Greek alphabet, electronic social media, secret society, corporate greed, and world domination
• and mind control
• Paradise Lost meets Facebook culture
• education & privilege
• myth & lore & religion
• the nature of friendship & family bonds
This complex, multilevel story is unafraid of abstraction and symbolism. The author doesn't always keep her balance; at times she overreaches. But I feel like forgiving her a lot because of what she dared to try and how well, in general, she succeeded.
I did note many lapses, some very minor but one I consider unjustifiable: she messes with the Greek alphabet by calling zeta the seventh letter. It's not. It's the sixth. She did that to force the unfolding of the story to fit a preconceived scheme. There's no doubt that zeta (Ζ, ζ) has more style and color than eta (Η, η), but Miller crossed a line with this contrivance to force adherence to a pattern or motif.
This was a good enough novel to deserve being spared this criticism. Someone involved in the editorial process ought to have been conscientious enough to call it out.
I gave Free to Fall to my daughter for Christmas, and as far as I know, she hasn't read it yet. I'll probably borrow it from her sometime.
Look Homeward, Angel (1929), by Thomas Wolfe (4½ stars)
Six-word review: We are made of lost things.
It's easy to see why this opus won passionate admiration and a place among the most influential novels of the early twentieth century. It's also easy to see why admiring imitators would have done better to choose some other sort of sincere flattery. Like any other distinctive stylist--Van Gogh comes to mind--only Wolfe is Wolfe, and it's best that others not try to be him.
I feel remiss in having failed to read this novel for more than half a century beyond the time when it was first recommended to me. If I had come to it sooner, I might have recognized traces of its unique character in other readings that I can only now reflect on in retrospect. I might also have had enough time by now to come to a full recognition of what the author did in these many pages.
On the one hand, there are beautiful, moving, lyrical passages, such as his paean to the lost young love (page 372), and insights of notable psychological reach:
Unknowingly, he had begun to build up in himself a vast mythology for which he cared all the more deeply because he realized its untruth. Brokenly, obscurely, he was beginning to feel that it was not truth that men live for--the creative men--but for falsehood. (page 183)And, as if to counterbalance numerous prolix outflowings of overwrought prose, there is on occasion marvelous economy of phrase: "elegant young ensigns out of college, with something blonde and fluffy at their sides" (page 418). And: "As that spring ripened he felt entirely, for the first time, the full delight of loneliness." Some of those, however, are cloyingly sugar-coated, as with all the instances of "lilac darkness" and the abundance of pearl and nacreous light.
On the other hand, there are numerous instances of questionable use of showoff words such as "phthisic" and "inchoate" (nine of the latter, including the absurd "a wild inchoate scream," page 227). When Wolfe springs words such as "gabular" and "ptotic" and "adyts" into the text, I seldom feel, as I do, for instance, with Oscar Wilde, that they belong to his peculiarly erudite vocabulary and flow naturally from his thought; but rather that he has gone to some little trouble to acquire them and that they are there more to impress than to honor precision.
Also noted: frequent suffocating passages swamped in bobbing, floating adverbs: these, for instance, gathered from two almost randomly chosen facing pages (135 and 136): stiffly, desperately, richly, moistly, sparsely, slightly, fiercely, beautifully, brightly, leafily, softly, musically, lazily, swinishly, cleanly, cynically (twice), belligerently, silently, contemptuously, toughly, thinly, pugnaciously, quietly.
Nonetheless, the novel drew me on; I didn't choose to abandon it. I found depths and revelations in this protracted coming-of-age tale, with its permeating theme of loss, that rewarded my attention. I also noticed that it made me write a little oddly for a while afterward, in much the same way that I start to talk a little funny after I've been bingeing on BBC costume dramas. My note immediately upon finishing it says this: "Style is at once lyrical and juvenile, erudite and ostentatious. Characters never seem to be, but constantly becoming. Does not draw conclusions or look for a simple answer anywhere. At times seems breathless and at times breathes wordlessly."
The Last Policeman (trilogy), by Ben H. Winters (4 stars)
(1) The Last Policeman (2012), by Ben H. Winters (3½ stars)
Six-word reviews (regular and bonus):
(a) Apocalyptic scenarios always deliver paranoid thrill.
(b) Ok, I'll read the next one.
(2) Countdown City (2013), by Ben H. Winters (3½ stars)
Six-word review: How they cope with impending destruction.
(3) World of Trouble (2014), by Ben H. Winters (3½ stars)
Six-word review: As time runs out, what matters?
This trilogy drew me in quickly with its premise and its main character. The earth is on a collision course with an asteroid, and no way of averting or surviving the catastrophic impact seems possible. A young police detective named Henry Palace is determined to pursue his calling, solving cases and stopping criminals, despite the fact that it is arguably pointless: everyone is going to die soon anyway.
The series thematically poses the questions: How do we spend our time? and does it matter?
Henry Palace's answer to the latter is yes, it matters. And his conviction that it matters is the key to his passion to spend his time, by his lights, well; or, at any rate, in such a way that his inner imperatives are satisfied.
Like some number of other trilogies, this is really one three-part novel (divided, I always think somewhat cynically, for marketing reasons rather than from any inherent structural necessity), with, typically enough, a little slack in the middle segment. It does have a clear arc, from beginning to end, with Palace's central question playing out against a backdrop of all the probable and plausible reactions to the world's imminent ending.
Publication of the three installments in three successive years does have the virtue of giving author Winters time to learn how to spell "imminent," which (as someone ought to have told him before 2012) means something altogether different when it has an a in it.
The character of Palace, as first-person narrator, is motivated by two compelling forces: first, the loss of his parents when he was twelve, one to senseless violence and the other to suicide, and second, a solemn promise to protect his adored younger sister and never to abandon her. "[A] promise is a promise," he says in book 2;
...and civilization is just a bunch of promises, that's all it is. A mortgage, a wedding vow, a promise to obey the law, a pledge to enforce it. And now the world is falling apart, the whole rickety world, and every broken promise is a small rock tossed at the wooden side of its tumbling form. (page 209)He recalls a quote from his father, an English professor: "One thing we can learn from Shakespeare, Hen, is that every action has a motive." In searching out and exposing the motives of others, he unsparingly shows us his own, both the unequivocal and the conflicted, and how they translate into deeds.
Palace is by his profession a man of action; but by his nature he is also a man of reflection, and his self-awareness contributes depth to his narrative of a global society in crisis. His evaluations tend toward understatement: "The end of the world changes everything, from a law enforcement perspective." At the same time, his character seems not to develop according to fictional convention. I don't see him growing and changing under the pressure of the challenges he faces. Rather, in the way of a more abstract character such as we see in a fable or allegory, he remains constant and becomes ever more resolutely what he is, even through self-doubt and questioning, as if his true role were not to play a part but to serve as a mirror.
In this capacity he confronts us with moral questions of our own; for in fact, as we all know despite our natural tendency to regard it as unthinkable, each of us is on a collision course with death; and even if we aren't facing it at a precisely forecast moment, and by a known means, and in simultaneous company with the rest of humanity, it still behooves us to ponder the question: what shall we do with the time that is given to us?
Not that the author or his narrator ever poses it outright; but it is implicit in the variety and kind of human responses to it that the three novels depict. The coping schemes that Palace observes range from public madness, mayhem, and destruction to a feverish obsession with reading everything in the library to a quiet, dignified surrender such as Nevil Shute describes in On the Beach (which Winters cites by name in book 1).
And denial. Speaking only slightly facetiously, I suggest that the series could be read as a crash course in the fine art of denial, which proves to have the potential for more dimensions than any impending catastrophe.
But the trilogy is not a catalog or a sociological thought experiment. It's a story, a series of stories, an intersection of stories, fraught with murder, revenge, justice, terror, cowardice, love, loss, loyalty, acceptance, and an ennobling capacity to rise above our meanest instincts. Palace is a detective, and he detects a good deal more than the solutions to the crimes he commits himself to solving. His final choice to embrace the common bond of humanity becomes his defining moment.
• Considering the number of novels that I have ditched on or before page 1 for being written in the present tense, I regard it as a testament to the author's skill in storytelling that I put up with this irritating stylistic practice all the way through three parts in quick succession. I could see an argument that present tense is better suited to a narrative anticipating the end of the world in our time than, say, a historical novel of the Middle Ages.
• It's worth special mention that all three books, in the trade paperback format in which I read them, came out to exactly 316 pages. I surmise that that was not happenstance but some kind of minor feat of self-editing.
• Even though I rated each of the three at 3½ stars, I gave the series four because it stays strong through all three parts and delivers more than the sum of its parts.
• Bonus points for one of the neatest encapsulations of character that I can remember in a contemporary novel: namely, the sister, who, when told, "The situation is what the situation is," retorts, "I disagree."
Wow. What a terrific summing up. I feel the need to read them again.
>41 Bookmarque: Oh, yay! Thank you. Do I get double BB points for prompting a reread?
Underground Airlines (2016), by Ben H. Winters (4 stars)
Six-word review: Hunting escaped slaves in alternate U.S.
This was my first exposure to the work of Ben H. Winters. I'd call it a winner. As soon as I finished it, I put the first of his "Last Policeman" trilogy on request at the library.
Underground Airlines posits a twenty-first-century United States in which the Civil War was never fought and slavery persists in four states. The main character, for reasons deeply rooted in the tragedy of his personal history, is a bounty hunter whose job is to track down slaves (PBLs--Persons Bound to Labor) who have made it to a free state and finger them for capture.
Making his story both compelling and psychologically complex is the fact that he himself is a black man and former PBL. He understands the mind of his prey: "What the slave wants but can never have is not only freedom from the chains but also from their memory." Pragmatic necessity never stops warring with guilt and self-loathing in this man who has taught himself ruthlessness as the price of survival; and yet some remnant of human feeling holds out the possibility of redemption: "I was a monster, but way down underneath I was good.... Good underground. In the buried parts of me are good things."
At the halfway point I wrote this in my notes: "Deliciously unreliable narrator who deceives for a living and who may or may not be deceiving us--and why is he writing this?--and yet seems to have an uncompromisingly truthful core, and what seems to me--but what do I know?--a keenly subtle sensitivity to the racism embedded in our society--even in those who believe they are free of it, challenging us to recognize and acknowledge our own."
Despite a few plot holes that I found irksome, this book delivered a strong and moving sense of vicarious experience and an undeniable call to take our own moral inventory.
>40 Meredy: I was hit by that triple book bullet a while ago. Your six-word reviews reinforce my wounds, but I shall defer reading your detailed reviews until after I have indulged. (I liked your "bonus" six-words for the first book.)
>40 Meredy: The trilogy has been near the top of my TBR pile for a long time now, but other things keep popping up before I tackle it. I won't likely get to it for a few more months now, but your review is helping to keep it in the top of my mind.
The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters (2017), by Emily Isfahani Smith (3 stars)
(an Early Reviewer review)
Six-word review: Look for meaning rather than happiness.
Drawing upon sources as disparate as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Dr. Jack Kevorkian, author Smith addresses herself to the perennial questions "What is the meaning of existence? And how can I lead a meaningful life?"
She cites studies that show that a quest for happiness as an end in itself tends not to succeed. A quest for meaning is a much surer path to happiness, and meaning is characterized by its relative lack of self-serving motives. Meaning derives from four "pillars": belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. Through copious anecdotes of the sort that would be familiar to readers of Malcolm Gladwell, Smith illustrates these elements in real-world terms and shows how people find them.
In this way the book imparts easily understood wisdom and guidance, commodities especially needful in these disturbed and rudderless times. Philosophy lite, we might argue, is better than no philosophy at all.
There were few revelations for me in this work, not being a stranger to the subject matter; but the key points are capably supported by examples, many of which are strikingly apt. Smith also makes use of a number of literary works in a way that makes me realize how rare it is these days for an author to treat literature unapologetically as a point of common cultural reference. (However, I sharply disagree with her interpretation of Camus's "The Myth of Sisyphus," which seems to me to miss the point.) The writing itself is competent, even if not brilliant. I was a bit put off by the chapter called "Conclusion," which, despite being the final chapter, does not draw conclusions so much as introduce new material and then tack on a weak ending that we could have got to without passing through any of the foregoing discussion.
My rating doesn't signify that the book is bad in any way, and I don't regret my investment in reading it; but I don't consider it a standout either. It may not shed great light, but neither does it cast shadows.
Detailed and comprehensive notes in the back add considerable value. The index is not yet present in this ER copy, but if it's as well done as the notes, I would expect it to be a strong plus.
A few days ago I saw a review in the New York Times of Kory Stamper's Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries and immediately ordered it from Amazon. It arrived yesterday. I was excited to get it and started it last night, as soon as I finished what I was working on.
This is my fourth book on the making of dictionaries. The other three are
Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman
Simon Winchester, The Meaning of Everything
Herbert C. Morton, The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and its Critics (a work that has received far less reader attention here on LT than I would have expected)
I find stuff like this simply fascinating. Do you?
I've been quite intrigued by the teasers I've seen for Word by Word, so I'm really looking forward to your review.
That one caught my eye, too, and I think I put it on my list for the library. I'm interested in what you make of it. This one looks good, too - Printer's Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History.
>49 Meredy: that looks interesting. I've gotten in line for it. There must be more people here reading your reviews that you know!
Early report on Word by Word: only 37 pages in, I can't predict how I'm going to rate it, but I can tell you that the author is getting on my nerves a little bit on two counts. One is a matter of tone, and the other is a matter of generalizations of a particular sort that invariably bug me. Examples are in my notebook, ready to hand for my review.
However, I am enjoying the look inside Merriam-Webster and the art of lexicography and am continuing on.
Reader's Log, Supplemental: 1
Introducing an occasional feature: a fictitious log line from a nonexistent book (or movie) that may or may not star me and actual members of my family in fictionalized versions of real-life situations.
Sunset over the Dumpster
A family rents a very large debris box to clear out the accumulated detritus of their lives, but disputes arise over what stays, what goes, and who decides.
When we moved I was ruthless. So far no one is crying over what is gone.
>56 Bookmarque: Are you sure that the enforcers aren't sticking pins into a wax model?
Yup. Getting rid of shit is so refreshing and it feels good for the most part. I'm much more particular now about what gets a place in my house / life than I was before. That shit has to deserve to stay. It's a privilege not a right.
Just received, so fresh off the press that it's still warm: The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, by Frances FitzGerald. The subject matter has personal relevance for me because I was brought up in an evangelical denomination, and specifically in a church college environment, where I had ample opportunity to learn that it's possible for intelligent, well-educated people to be sincere believers. (Not possible for all, but possible for some.)
As I was growing up in the sixties, my experiences of church and politics were entirely separate. Now in many ways they seem to be indistinguishable from one another. I'm hoping that this book will both shed some light on that confluence of forces and reveal strong undercurrents that trend away from theocracy.
There's a new movie out called The Zookeeper's Wife, based on a 2007 novel of the same name by Diane Ackerman. I saw a review of it, and it sounds good, but I'll skip it because of the title. What is it with those titles, "The X's Y"? I don't understand the apparent fad--did all the marketing guys in publishing go to the same one-day titling workshop? Anyway, I am not reading any more of them, no matter what. Including no matter how good they are.
Oh I know what you mean. The Gamekeeper's Daughter or whatever will get an auto-pass for me based on the title alone. That rule has stood me in good stead for years and did so alone, but recently has been joined by any title with Girl in it. Nope. Not reading it. Bah. It's so done.
>60 Meredy: >61 Bookmarque: >62 jjwilson61: So you all won't be planning to read 'The Girly-Girl's Daughter is Gone on the Train', then? ;-)
>59 Meredy: The Evangelicals looks very interesting. I will be keeping an eye out for it. Have you read Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John Barry? I got a lot out of that book when I read it about a year and a half ago.
I love that I can crab about stuff like that around here and people will still talk to me. I'm not sorry I read The Orphan Master's Son, a good enough book that I might even reread it one day, but if I hadn't already read it, I'd just forget it.
>63 ScoLgo:, yes, I did, last year, and found it rich and fascinating. I gave it 4 1/2 stars but bogged down in trying to write a review, despite having made 9 pages of notes while reading (with such comments as "Why do people practice religions that make them miserable?"). A line I particularly appreciated: "He [Williams] was saying that when one mixes religion and politics, one gets politics" (page 308). My one-line summary of the book: Scholarly but not overly academic--depicts character as well as thought and deed. I suppose I could post that much and call it a review, but I really wanted to do the book justice, and that aspiration kind of overwhelmed me.
I didn't realize that the discriminating reader eschewed "The X's Y" titles. Must ponder. I did like The Orphan Master's Son, and The Time Traveler's Wife (I'm assuming this applies to the person's person and not other types of nouns). But those are the only ones I would defend, that I remember reading.
>67 citygirl: Well, I would not presume to classify myself as such. As far as I'm concerned, it's a prejudice born of irritation, and the irritation is due to the implication that someone's identity is primarily a matter of his or her (usually her) relationship to someone else. I see it as a marketing fad, and those invariably trigger an aversive reflex in me.
Excluding a class of books on such an arbitrary basis is not likely to cause me to run out of books, and it might even have the effect of relieving a little pressure and thus enabling me to be more tolerant of something else; and so I indulge it.
You go to visit an old friend whom you haven't seen in a long time. She invites you into her shop and goes into the back room. While you wait for her, you hear water running. Can you tell from the sound of it that she's running the water into wineglasses?
Really--I'm asking! Because I don't think I could. And I'm about to quote a passage--but first I want to know if that's a thing that anybody thinks they could do.
I'm sure I couldn't tell, but I have very little experience with wineglasses.
>71 Meredy: I thought you were recounting a pleasant encounter with an old friend. I think one would require supporting evidence such as a "ting" sound as two glasses touched, our a very deep knowledge of the friend that brought back memories of a shared habit from the past.
Of course, I am sure Sherlock Holmes has done a study on the sounds of dish washing and could produce a monograph on the subject, if not a monograph on the sounds of washing each type of dish and item of cutlery.
>71 Meredy: One might be able to deduce something like that if the water is turned off as each glass is filled -- can you tell that water restrictions have made some of us paranoid about wasting the stuff? But otherwise I have to admit that from your description my first thought was a loo flushing.
>76 pgmcc: Pete, I make a point of pouring the wine in front of the guest, and making sure they can see the label if they want :-Þ
>77 hfglen: It's where you clean the glasses that I'm worried about. If we're drinking straight from the bottle that's fine.
>71 Meredy: The only way it would seem likely to me would be if it were part of an old and familiar ritual, which the listener would likely remember even though they haven’t seen each other in a long time.
If an old friend always runs water into wine glasses for the two of you when you meet so you can sip water while you talk, then it probably would be easy to recognize that’s what the friend is doing based on the familiar sounds and the context of the known routine. It would be just like how people can recognize the random noises they hear as family members or co-workers go about their normal routine. (ETA: Which is essentially what >74 pgmcc: said.)
It reminds me of a bit in a really bad book I read years ago where a guy threw another guy off a 30 story building and described the sound of him hitting the pavement. Really? From way the hell up there. Those are some ears.
>78 pgmcc: In the sink, in still water -- running water wastes far too much.
Here's the passage. The two haven't seen each other in years, their friendship has been severely strained, if not entirely ruptured, and the visitor has never been in this shop before.
Autumn pulled out a chair from behind the cash desk for Lizzie, flipped over the sign on the door so it said "Open" again, and marched into a back room, from where Lizzie could hear wineglasses being put under the tap. At noon.The implication of the remark "At noon." is disapproval, although it's not certain whether that's because Autumn hasn't done her previous night's dishes yet by noon, or that she's getting ready to start drinking so early. The context suggests the latter, but it isn't clear.
So--I'm wondering: how in the world does Lizzie know that the sound she hears is that of wineglasses (or, indeed, any kind of glasses) being put under the tap?
Was it necessarily disapproval, or could it be recognition that Autumn was making a special occasion of Lizzie's visit to have an early drink? If it was disapproval could it be an indications that Autumn had a drink problem and was trying to get rid of the evidence before Autumn spotted the glasses? Should a comma rather than a full-stop have been used after, "...under the tap", to give emphasis to "At noon." rather than the "At noon" hanging there in splendid isolation without even as much as an exclamation mark? "...could hear wineglasses being put under the tap, at noon!" Perhaps an ellipsis might have proven appropriate. "...could hear wineglasses being put under the ta...at noon!"
Possibly the evidence Autumn was hiding was not the fact that she was drinking, or that she had not done the dishes, but that she had had company while drinking.
Returning to the pertinent matter of your query, how did Lizzie know that it was wineglasses that were being put under the tap? Does the context indicate that Lizzie's knowledge of the items being washed being wineglasses is important to the plot? If so, perhaps the author was focused on having Lizzie made aware of the existence of the wineglasses and was too focused on her objective to properly think through the verisimilitude of her means of bringing this information to the attention of Lizzie. Perhaps the author has frequent occasion to wash wineglasses (I in no way am making an comment about the authors drinking habits and have no knowledge of the author's drinking habits.) and has a sense of the sound and subconsciously assumed everyone would recognise the sound of wineglasses being washed.
Is the location a bar? Could the implication of the glasses being put under the tap mean that wine (or beer?) was being poured into the glass from the wine (or beer) tap?
The only way that I can think of that wine glasses could be identified by sound would be if they were clinking together.
I have conducted the experiments. Even with a "clink" or perhaps, like my husband, Amanda enjoys making a noise rubbing the rim of the glass while slightly wet, there is no discernible difference between the sound of a crystal wineglass and a crystal water glass. Nor is there a difference in sound with plain glass versions.
This leads me to conclude that Lizzie is a judgmental jerk and Amanda has good reason to be cool in her relations with her.
>84 Meredy: Well, if this is the book I think it is, there ARE fantasy elements involved, so... ;)
Maybe it is meant to indicate that she recognizes the particular sound because she's heard it often in this situation? I might not be able to tell the difference in sound between a wine glass and water glass either, but if I'm at my sister's house the chances are good that it's wine :)
>90 Darth-Heather: I'd just want to make sure the glasses were well rinsed, because there's nothing worse than ruining good wine with a soapy glass!
My last day in Cambridge. I've been away from home (San Jose home) for two weeks: Orlando, Baltimore, Boston. Cambridge. In a very deep sense, this is home. When I head for Logan Airport tomorrow morning, it will be 40 years to the day since I flew out of Boston to live where I'm still living now, with the man for whom I exchanged my old life.
Yesterday I met Marissa for an early lunch and visit in North Cambridge. Then I went out to visit my old neighborhoods around Harvard Sq. and Central Sq. on foot. It was more of a walk than I thought I could do after 40 years, but I made it. Nice long rest stop at The Plough and Stars, a neighborhood pub that opened while I was living nearby. They had a live jug band playing for a crowd of regulars. I made two lifelong friends over a couple of glasses. Hated to leave, but it was time to move on. Sooner or later it always is.
Glad to hear you're enjoying your travels and indulging in some nostalgia.
>92 Meredy: Oh my, the Plough and Stars. I misspent a few evenings of my youth there. :)
The two of you look very congenial! I, too, wish I could have joined you.
Thanks, all! I have great memories from the whole trip, and meeting up with Marissa was one of the high points.
I took a little break from reading the history of ancient manuscripts in Timbuktu to race through a lightweight but suspenseful page-turner by Jennifer McMahon, Don't Breathe a Word. It has two timelines, a main thread involving the supernatural, lots of plot twists and turns, and deeply layered, interlaced family secrets that make just about any nuttiness we're living with look tame.
This is a reviewlet and not a full-fledged review, so I'll give it three words: I enjoyed it.
>104 Jim53: I read one of hers years ago: Dismantled. As I recall it, there was at least one significant plot hole, and there was a little girl who was blisteringly, teeth-grindingly annoying; but the psychological aspect was compelling and extremely unusual, and so I stayed with it. Now I've come back and taken another chance with McMahon, and I think she did well with this one. I'll probably look at another the next time I'm ready for fiction of her fast-moving, creepy variety.
I think I've read enough books about North Korea over the past decade. I'm starting on Russia now.
I don't know where I saw a mention of The Intellectual Devotional, a collection of educational short takes in the arts and sciences arranged as a daily reader, but my order was into Amazon as fast as I could click. And now I am indeed using it as a daily reader, installed on the bedside tower for nightly consumption.
Despite the "daily devotional" gimmick (and the fact that already by page 1 I'd encountered editorial dereliction), I love the idea of absorbing a single one-page, limited-subject-matter, fact-based discourse per day. I hope it turns out that I already knew some of it--and I hope even more that the information is accurate.
Purging the Shelves
I've begun what I hope will be a genuine purge of my library and not just a token moving of a pile from point A to point B.
My bookshelves in the little room we call the library are double or triple density: two layers at the back of the shelf and one in front, with more books stacked horizontally on top of those. Yesterday I went to the bottom of the back of two shelves and pulled out a lot of college literature, including all the novels of Thomas Hardy (I took a course just in Hardy) and some 20th-century poetry from a course called "Modern Metaphysical Poets."
These are books I've carried around with me since the late sixties and early seventies, and some even longer. I'm not going to read them again; or if I do, I can probably find them for Kindle at 99 cents.
Acknowledging that I'm not going to read them again--and that I can live without having them at ready access just in case--is a kind of (gulp) moment of recognizing a milestone in aging that passes with some amount of pain. And maybe that's the real reason it's been so hard.
So I spent a couple of hours yesterday cataloguing the ones that I hadn't already listed on LT, adding tags to show I'd disposed of them, and uploading cover scans for visual recognition. If I ever do go looking for them, my LT record will show that they've been removed.
What to do with them is a real problem that has long deterred me from this step. They're paperbacks, inexpensive to begin with and now brown around the edges, with bindings that in some cases are split or falling off, even though I always treated them with care and never cracked them or bent them back. Many have markings and marginalia: not profligate highlighting, but careful underlining and notations. With their age and condition, I doubt that any of them has any resale value on Amazon, they will not be better than the editions in the library, they are unlikely to attract patrons at a Friends of Library sale, and I can't see the residents at a retirement home, hospital, or jail eagerly picking up a crumbling edition of Jude the Obscure or the poems of Hart Crane. If recent paperback mysteries and science fiction languish in a box marked "FREE" at the curb, how likely is anyone to adopt a yellowed copy of Anna Karenina with a faded cover?
And yet I simply cannot make myself drop them in the recycle bin. I don't think I have done that more than a half dozen times ever, and those few really deserved it.
I did offer them first to my sons, and to my surprise one of them took a book of William Carlos Williams poems that is actually in very good shape.
Today I'm going to pack these first couple dozen in a box, label it "books," and take it to a neighborhood drop box for donations. The sign explicitly says "clothes, shoes, books." They may be destined for recycling after all, but I don't have to be the one to watch them go.
If this works, and I can do the same thing a few more times, maybe I can open enough shelf space to clear off some of the furniture in the living room. I haven't even gained enough room yet just for what's stacked on the coffee table.
Meanwhile, a new book arrived two days ago, and I'm expecting another one today.
>110 Meredy: I wish you well in your venture, and understand how painful it is! It is one thing to disperse books you know have a chance of falling into appreciative hands, but much harder to let go of the ones we have which would not be valued.
I think you are on the right track in cataloging them on LT, and I would go so far as to suggest that for any which have special memories or thoughts in them, you could enter those in the "private comments" section, or the review section if you don't mind others reading it. The reason I suggest the private comments is that I know how much thought and effort you put into your reviews, and you would get stuck in your project. :)
>111 MrsLee: What a good idea, and how perceptive of you to observe that I would quickly bog down if I tried to compose public comments on all of them. Thank you.
I know exactly what you mean about that milestone of accepting that you can live with immediate access to some of your books. I reached it when I inherited all of my mother's books, and had to decide which of my own books I would have to let go to make room for those of my mother's that I wanted to keep. Mind you, I have to re-accept it every time I need to make more space, but it has never been as momentous as that first time.
I'm fortunate enough to have two big book sales locally that take donations, and I always take in several boxfuls. Unfortunately, the sales are within a month of each other, so I sometimes have to store my boxes for almost a year.
Another milestone I had to pass was being able to put tattered paperbacks or outdated textbooks in recycling. I attained that milestone after seeing the woman my brother calls "the Book Nazi" at work. She actually came out to my car and dug through six boxes of books, weeding out all that she didn't find worthy—and it seemed to have as much to do with her taste as with condition. She said there was no point taking them in because they would just end up in the dumpster. So now I figure that if it's falling apart, or the information is too outdated, I will ensure they go sympathetically into recycling rather than ending up in a landfill. (I saw her at the sale yesterday, and most admirably restrained myself from throwing a large, heavy book at her.)
>113 SylviaC: "go sympathetically into recycling"...that gives me pause. It has the feel of "decent burial" (which is to some of us precisely about going sympathetically into recycling). It sounds like the same impulse I've had to wrap up certain nonbook discards so they wouldn't sit naked in the trash as though no one had ever wanted them or cared for them. Ah, anthropomorphism--what an obstacle to decluttering! Alongside perfectionism, of course, which makes us want to do the right thing with everything--and to control its fate even after it leaves our hands.
Fire is a dignified way to end the present material form of things, but the idea of burning books is viscerally repugnant.
My son said the neighborhood drop box is the wrong way to go: the contents are going to get pawed through by people looking for something to sell, and the rest gets dumped unceremoniously. I think it's back to the library. Some of these books will be wanted by somebody, maybe even before the library assistant loads her cart.
>114 Meredy: I've been surprised more than once to see the library take books that I thought were marginal. I'm less hesitant to give them worn books than I used to be. Usually they end up in their quarterly sales, but I've seen a couple that they repaired and added to their collection, presumably because they thought there was some demand for them.
>115 Jim53: That's encouraging. Thanks.
In the past three days I've "deacquisitioned" (a library word, weird but not inaccurate) about 50 books. So far I've returned only two to the shelves after cataloguing them here, and I might put back a couple more that were gifts, inscribed to me by my late father. But I've made a start, and that may be the hardest part.
You know, sometimes library vocabulary is so routine to me that I forget what it can sound like to others. I could see where de-acquisitioned might sound really weird....Having typed that and reflected momentarily, I might go so far as to suggest that most likely the concept didn't even require that kind of re-phrasing. Librarianship can go a bit over-the-top at times.
>117 jillmwo: I think what bothers me about it is not so much the coined reversal of "acquisition" (perhaps for the sake of neutrality, because the synonyms of "remove" have some sort of negative connotation to them, such as "dispose of" and "discard"?) but because "acquisition" isn't a verb. Why not "deacquire," one wonders?
And while we're wondering:
I wonder if some Ph.D. candidate has ever studied the book choice decision-making process of steady readers--not what to buy but what to pick up and read. How do we choose what's next? Assuming that it's a free choice and not a matter of assignment or similar constraint (e.g., you're in jail and there are only two books in the library), it probably isn't entirely conscious and rational. I have an idea that it might be as complex a notion as those studied by John Nash:
Nash's work has provided insight into the factors that govern chance and decision-making inside complex systems found in everyday life.Do you suppose such a study would belong in the field of literature, or library science, or psychology, or neuroscience?
I see problems with definitions right away. How free is a free choice? My choices are constrained by what I have already acquired or have at my disposal; a process of selection was involved in making them available. (And what about gifts?) But assuming that at any given time there's more than one available option, what's the decision-making process? For some it might be random, but not for all.
Still, my question isn't "How do we decide?" It's "Has somebody written a dissertation on (or otherwise done a formal study of) how we decide?"
>119 Meredy: Way outside my field, but how would you go about studying this? Though I'll readily agree with you that the answer would be interesting, even fascinating if well presented.
>119 Meredy: It's interesting to think about how to do this sort of study. One can always interview readers and use their self-reporting; what other methods would be more objective?
>117 jillmwo: Re: jargon, perhaps we should "take that off line," or if it will require more intensive focus, "let's rathole on that." ;-)
>118 Meredy: I can only respond with the following quote:
From the textbook, Fundamentals of Collection Development and Management (ALA, 2004)
Withdrawal is the process of removing materials from the active collection. Other terms used for this activity are weeding, pruning, thinning, deselection, deaccession, relegation, deacquisition, retirement, reverse selection, negative selection, and book stock control. The extensive list of euphemisms suggests the degree to which librarians are uncomfortable getting rid of materials. Some authors make distinctions between these terms; other use them synonymously. As Paul Mosher has written, “It is a paradox that a process established to improve the utility and cost-benefit of collections for users creates so high a level of anxiety.”
Personally, I have always reacted with an eye-roll (mentally and actually) when I would see the term, de-accession. I know WHY they came up with the term, but an extreme eye-roll is the only possible response to it.
>121 Jim53: Honestly, I'd never before heard of "rathole-ing". That's a new one.
>119 Meredy: I'm not aware of any such research or dissertation work. I suspect that it is too messy a topic to allow for appropriate measurement by any of the fields you mention - library science, neuroscience, literature or psychology.
I recently bought and read a book that had received significant attention in the press. Everybody was talking or posting about it. That led me to pluck a previously unread book from my shelf that was located at the other end of the spectrum of discussion about the topic. I thought of it as re-orienting myself in a middle-ground. Following those two, I rummaged about on my shelves for some more unread (but owned) book titles and purchased two more titles (again related). All of the titles would have been classified under the same Dewey Decimal number in a library. Six titles read or consulted in rapid succession, clearly in my mind all part and parcel of the same unformulated or undefined question. I can tell you which title led to which; I can even tell you at what point my fickle brain went "OK, we're satisfied. Moving On". But how to document or quantify that process of engagement for purposes of study, I do not know.
I don't know how such a study would be conducted. But I have over the years been mightily impressed by the indirect and yet highly effective studies carried out by researchers to discover or reveal aspects of behavior--studies designed so that human subjects (including, depressingly often, psychology undergraduates) did not know what behavior was being targeted. I'll bet there's a way.
Not that the answer is needed for anything, any more than people need to know the missing word in a 4000-year-old clay tablet; still, somebody takes an interest in it and tries to find out. Curiosity is a powerful motivator and is, in my opinion, a life force, nearly as strong as the basic drives of survival. And unlike most other things, the reason for being purely curious about some particular thing doesn't need to be explained. The fact that somebody may later on find a use for the knowledge gained is immaterial.
>122 jillmwo:, That's comforting somehow. I'd hate to think it was done mechanically and unfeelingly. I also invariably feel a sense of some satisfaction when I know that borrowing a certain book from the library renews its life on the shelf.
Yesterday I carried two boxes, containing a total of 55 books, into the library and dropped them off at the donation station. I resisted the urge to open them for one last look and maybe a photo, like one of those bizarre Victorian photographs of dead children.
I seldom see anyone slip even a single book into the slot on the donation box, but yesterday, almost literally on my heels, in came another woman carrying a first and then a second box of books to leave off next to mine.
Dear reader, I did not even take a peek. I walked away.
I just made it through The Master and Margarita, which was not an easy read. I suspended it while keeping vigil at my son's bedside in the hospital. He was admitted for septic shock caused by blood poisoning from an unknown source while his immune system was compromised by chemotherapy. He spent two days in the ICU and several more in a medical ward. I was glad to have some light reading on my Kindle--a Nero Wolfe mystery and (thanks, Peter!) Stevenson's The Wrong Box.
My son is home now, on self-administered IV antibiotics, and doing a bit better. And I finished the Russian tome last night.
>132 Meredy: Hugs to you. May you find your reading to be a refuge in the storm, and may the storm pass soon and the sunny skies prevail.
Sending wishes for continued healing to your son, and strength to you.
I have been drawn out of a weeks'-long inability to engage online by this fascinating thread.
First, wishes for a speedy and uneventful recovery for your son, Meredy.
"Deaccessioning" works for me, despite its shortcomings. I suspect it is a way for me to distance myself from the painful and ambivalent parts of getting rid of my books. I want the vocabulary of a technocrat, a manager, to take the emotion out of what would otherwise feel something like giving up my child because she was too burdensome to keep around and took up too much space in my life. Crazy in itself: getting rid of unneeded and no longer wanted books is liberating, creates space for other uses, etc. But for better or worse my relationship with my books is fraught, emotional and fetishistic.
Book choice too is fascinating. I would love to see a good study of that. For me a big factor is not having a good system to organize all the many books I have that I haven't yet read. I forget about many that I was excited about when I first got them. And while there is a conscious process of mentally organizing certain books I intend to read, there is often an exciting moment of freedom when I have not yet committed to a new book, and I have a whole library of choices. I am sure that at those moments unconscious factors play into the ultimate selection. But I'd love to read what someone who has studied this thoroughly has to say.
Thanks so much for the kind thoughts and wishes. My son is now off the regular meds and is slowly getting his strength back. From my age-perspective, youth looks like a big plus in confronting a serious illness; but from the other side, youth does not expect to deal with such things and has a hard time coping with infirmity. He's doing the best he can.
I think every day of writing minimal catch-up reviews for the many months that I've lagged. But the idea of writing just a few lines per book is so dissatisfying to me. This is exactly the kind of paralysis that has plagued me all my life: my ideas are bigger than what I can actually do, and I hate to settle for less than what I can envision. Often the result of that is that I do nothing. Things are a little calmer now, and that's a great relief.
I'm currently reading a new work called The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, by Frances FitzGerald. It's a pretty hefty volume, and not light reading. Its tone is scholarly but not overly academic. My interest lies at least partly in the fact that this account puts my own family background into a social-historical context of which I was largely unaware.
I've always thought it was good for people to have a sense of where they come from, but I didn't realize that I myself was lacking that. Awareness of the roots and traditions of New England from the colonies on down does not explain the particular influences that came through my family's involvement in the Protestant evangelical and holiness movements of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I'm gaining a perspective both on my parents' histories and on the things I so wholeheartedly rejected in my own turn, now seeing how they fit into the broader social fabric.
I wish I'd known more about these things decades ago. It might not have changed what I did, but it would have given me a better understanding of the context in which I grew up and perhaps a bit more charity toward some of the key players.
Meredy, it's good to see you. And that sounds interesting. One of the best courses I took in college way too many years ago was on the Great Awakening in America. This sounds like it might fit well into that avenue of study.
>140 Meredy: Hi! I am glad things are calming down a bit.
I empathise with your comment about not wanting to erite something small that will not do justice to the breadth and depth of your vision. That is the same reason I have not managed to get started on my 6,000 page volume that will solve the world's problems and ensure peace and harmony throughtout the planet.
Finished it! Whew. A full month--that's the longest I can remember working on a book that I was actually reading every day. I am definitely taking a break with some light reading now.
It was worth the effort, though, for how much I learned. I can't retain content the way I used to, but I mostly get the abstractions, the overall shape, the implications, and an assortment of particulars, as well as the extracts and comments that I write in my paper journal.
I feel like giving a prize to any news commentator or columnist who doesn't use the expression "double down" in a piece.
This is about utterly worn-out phrases. I know we don't do politics here.
I'm currently reading The Nakano Thrift Shop as a read-aloud with my husband. After one session, we like it and will continue. That was a book bullet from SylviaC. We recently abandoned The Rosetta Man and, just before that, The Silent Corner, both about halfway through, and both, in our opinion, unable to support their considerable length.
We're away from home at present (hurray!) and until tomorrow (sigh), and I used up my library book (The Essex Serpent). The Nakano Thrift Shop was my backup. So I turned to my Kindle, my emergency fallback, where I had lined up Tim Powers' On Stranger Tides. I have found some of his novels wonderful and others just too weirdly contrived and annoying. This one starts like a lurid B movie of the 1940s; I didn't care for it. After a little while I resumed my long-sustained project of getting through the entire body of work of H.P. Lovecraft, much of which I have read before. Last night I came to "Pickman's Model," one of the best, and the more so for me because its setting includes two Boston neighborhoods in which I used to live. It still chills, thesaurus-draining adjectives and all.
Oh, Pickman's Model was my first Lovecraft story back in high school, heard read on Richard L. Kay's "WCRB Saturday Night" radio show (do you remember that?) I agree, one of his best.
>148 Marissa_Doyle: When was that? WCRB was my full-time radio station from about age 11. I remember Richard L. Kaye, but my Saturday night WCRB program was "Folk City, U.S.A.," with Robert J. Lurtsema, at 11:00 p.m. This was early sixties onward, and it's where I gained most of my knowledge of the American folk music that predated the Dylan-Baez surge of the mid-sixties. If there'd been a story hour on then, I think I'd have tuned in. I left Cambridge in 1977.
I think it started in the late sixties and ran well into the nineties, beginning (I think) at 11 pm and running till 12:30 or so--I started listening to it in the mid to late seventies. It wasn't a story hour--actually, more of a variety show: Kaye played lots of British comedy (my first exposure to The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, Round the Horn, Flanders and Swann, and others) and musical humor in general, from Tom Lehrer to Victor Borge to P.D.Q. Bach. I think the Lovecraft was from his Halloween show one year.
I grew up on Robert J. Lurtsema's "Morning Pro Musica" and still miss it. A much better way to wake up than any other. :)
While convalescing from a little minor surgery, I'm sitting around a lot--and doing extra reading.
Currently I'm reading a well-documented account of Kim Jong-Il's rise to power in North Korea, a fictionalized biography of Thomas Paine, and the autobiography of an evangelical preacher whose life is committed to God's service. It strikes me how much they have in common. Superficially they seem almost impossibly different: one is inspired by his own lust for vast power, one simply articulates his view of harsh reality, and one has a mission she knows was given to her by God; but all are using their gifts for expression and persuasion to convey their vision to others and influence their actions.
What is it, what daemon, that drives the few to stand up before the multitude with a message meant to instill conviction and effect change? I hope this uncalculated and unexpected parallel of three who became leaders in their respective spheres will yield some insights.
>152 stellarexplorer: Not to all three. At least, I don't think so. Probably runs in the Kim family, though.
Are you sure? Narcissism is such a pervasive psychological trait, running along a dimension from healthy expectable narcissism that is an ordinary part of human development to pathological and malevolent narcissism. I wonder whether all three might have been driven in part by such a trait. Even the well-intentioned seeker of high office (let alone the ill-intentioned) must have his or her ample share of grandiosity. And so the agent of God’s will on Earth has been singled out for a very special calling that might too be a version of grandiosity. My 2 cents.
>154 stellarexplorer: Interesting. I have my own share of Narcissism, if you will, in that I am quite satisfied with my views of the world, and God and everything, but I have never felt the drive to convince others of my views. For a time, I tried because I was told that was what was expected of me. That was a false out-side driven phase of my life.
>151 Meredy: I will be interested if you come to any conclusions, or in your observations.
>151 Meredy: It's always interesting to find links between different books, especially where they might be least expected.
My Journey by God's Design, by Sheila McCrea-MacCallum
I'll describe this book, although I won't review it. I don't review or rate books written by people I know or have known or books that I have worked on in any capacity.
My Journey by God's Design (2017) is the autobiography of a woman who at a very young age felt a call to preach the gospel of Jesus and pledged her life to his service. In 147 short pages she describes her upbringing, the important lessons she learned growing up, and how she found her career as an evangelical Protestant minister. She started preaching as a teenager in her small Canadian hometown and soon began receiving invitations to speak in other congregations. Over a span of six decades she has been an evangelist, guest speaker, pastor, teacher, and spiritual leader across numerous states and provinces. At present she serves in a church on Prince Edward Island.
I knew her when I was in my teens and she was in her mid-twenties, already established in her ministry and well known in her denomination. I saw in her an inspiring, energetic, and charismatic personality who radiated joyous conviction. I don't believe I've ever known anyone more certain of her path. Her sincerity is beyond question. She says:
Early in my ministry the Lord taught me two lessons. First, do not count the crowds or the number of people at the altar. Each individual at each meeting is God's business. Second, He showed me that the Holy Spirit would draw them in and draw them to Himself. All glory and praise must go to God for anything that was accomplished. (page 51)In simple but vivid language, Sheila shows us how she grew in her calling and in her personal life, learning new lessons as experience deepened her understanding and never failing to see in them the meaning revealed to her by her faith in God and her study of the scriptures.
Now in her elder years, she continues to hold fast to the beliefs that have sustained her all her life, to share their light freely with others, and to look forward to each new day.
These three books, which I read just recently and concurrently, are all about power of one kind or another, and they make a very interesting compare-and-contrast study:
• A Kim Jong-Il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator's Rise to Power, by Paul Fischer
• Citizen Tom Paine, by Howard Fast
• My Journey by God's Design, by Sheila McCrea-MacCallum
As it happens, so was the next:
• Putin's Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?, by Karen Dawisha
I'm pondering the experience of reading this very intense quartet, especially just now, and preparing to note down some thoughts. Meanwhile I'm dashing through Nero Wolfe books and similar palate-cleansing comfort reads, both to freshen my mind and to make the days go down more easily.
Right now, two weeks before Christmas, I wish I had another Winter Solstice (Pilcher) or Mystery in White (Farjeon) to cozy my way through the holidays.
With today's addition of Leonardo da Vinci, by Walter Isaacson, a well-considered gift from my husband, the number of books catalogued in my library reaches 1000. That number represents all the additions I've logged as my own (i.e., not library books or other borrowed books) since joining LT, as well as some subset of the books I owned before that.
So it's not an actual count of my titles, but it's still a milestone to have catalogued that many.
One of these days I will get to the back of the bottom of all the bookshelves and boxes and complete my inventory.
The subject matter is suitably auspicious to mark a millenial milestone.
>161 Meredy: Glad to see you adding such hiqh quality materials (as it's most deserving of your time and attention)!
Hey, congrats on a grand!
Are you reading Death is a Lonely Business? What do you think of it?
Thank you, thank you. It felt big to me (even though I could have pushed it a lot sooner just by opening a few stored boxes). I'm looking forward to getting into the Jacobson book. I'll probably have to wear a wrist support if I want to enjoy it as bedtime reading. Anathem (also a hefty hardcover) almost crippled me.
>164 Bookmarque:, yes, I am. I started it as part of a run of intended lighter reading after finishing the Putin book. But this one isn't quite as light as I expected. Only a few pages in, I wrote in my journal: "Style right away reminds me of Days Between Stations (Steve Erickson)--a similar sort of dreamy weirdness where the inner and outer worlds blend without distinct boundaries." I soon saw that it was one of those Escherlike explorations of the relationship between creature and creator--making for the most unreliable sort of narrator while at the same time containing generous doses of the kind of truth that comes only with introspective fiction. Despite the occasionally self-conscious exaggerated lyricism, it interests me, and so I'm going on with it.
I have it as part of one of those huge collections available for Kindle, titles apparently in the public domain and/or available inexpensively, OCR-scanned, and wildly not proofread. Sometimes with all my editor's and proofreader's art I can't make out what a misrendered word is supposed to be. All the way through one of the Buchan selections, "his" appeared as "Ms." Reading it on the Kindle frustrates the part of me that compulsively marks typos in my reading matter.
Well, here it is January 1, and I must acknowledge that I left a lot of things undone in 2017, including many book reviews. I hope to be around and participate a bit more in 2018, even if I never catch up with my backlog.
A merry new year to everyone--and a sincere hope that whatever we may repeat in 2018, it won't be our worst mistakes.
This topic was continued by Meredy's 2018 Reading Journal.
This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.