Thursday, October 4, 2018

First Lines: September 2018 edition

As we lurch toward November 6th, this Common Household Mom has many deep thoughts, but not a moment to write them down.  I have time to read, only because it (sometimes) helps me fall asleep.

Here are the first lines of the books I finished reading during September.

Book 1
Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

Book 2
The gate was packed with weary travelers, most of them standing and huddled along the walls because the meager allotment of plastic chairs had long since been taken.

Book 3
In early September 2017, in the eighth month of the Trump presidency, Gary Cohn, the former president of Goldman Sachs and the president’s top economic adviser in the White House, moved cautiously toward the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office.

Book 4
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, to the saints and faithful brothers and sisters in Christ in Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

Book 5
The Forethought
Herein lie buried many things which if read with patience may show the strange meaning of being black here at the dawning of the Twentieth Century.  This meaning is not without interest to you, Gentle Reader; for the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.

The titles and authors revealed:

Book 1
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling.  © 1997 (or 1998 in US).  Delightful to read again.  It was calming to spend time with these well-known characters who face evil and adolescence all at the same time.  But in this case we know that they will eventually vanquish the evil and become functioning adults. I am eagerly awaiting the library’s kindle copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  I am 49th in line. 

Book 2
Skipping Christmas: Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham. © 2001
Either I was in a foul and desperate mood when I read this, or Grisham dropped a brick on his foot during the writing of this book, and he was in a foul mood.  It was supposed to be funny, but I found it quite annoying.   I don’t know why, but I did finish it.

Book 3
Fear: Trump in the White House, by Bob Woodward  © 2018.
This was the first book I have ever bought in advance of the release date.  I wasn’t interested in the other tell-all books about the Trump Administration, but this one promised to be assiduously researched and truthful.  Since Woodward is, in fact, a writer of integrity, there are holes in the narrative where I wanted to understand better just what was going on - if he couldn't say it with certainty, he's not going to conjecture.  Filling in the missing info will have to wait for the historians.  But on the whole, my reaction to the book is: Oh, my Lord, save us.  This was a book I could not read at night with any hope of peacefully falling asleep.

Book 4
Colossians (NRSV), by a follower of Paul, or maybe Paul.  ©~50 to 80 C.E.
After reading the Woodward book, I needed something very holy to read.  Colossians was a reasonably good antidote to the subject matter of Woodward’s book.  Set your minds on things that are above, not on earthly things.  These days, I’m finding it hard to do that.

Book 5
The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Dubois © 1903
I started reading this book in March, and it took me this long to finish it, not because it was a slog to read, but because other more pressing reading kept coming up.   This is a book that is possible to read in spurts, the way I did.  Even though it was written over 100 years ago, much of it is still pertinent today, sadly.  Du Bois has insights about humanity in general, and American society in particular.  I recommend this book.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

First Lines: July-August 2018 edition

I bought meself these roses to cheer meself up.

My reading during July and August centered on lamentation, with a smattering of redemption.  I was privileged to read some excellent writing on some difficult topics.  Here are the first lines of books I finished.

Book 1
How lonely sits the city
    that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
    she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
    has become a vassal.

Book 2
Miss Jane Neal met her maker in the early morning mist of Thanksgiving Sunday.  It was pretty much a surprise all round.

Book 3
Born in 1984: Masha
On the seventieth anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, Masha’s grandmother, a rocket scientist, took Masha to the Church of St. John the Warrior in Central Moscow to be baptized.

Book 4
The winter had become a test of endurance and patience, especially for those living in northern Wisconsin. 

Book 5
Higher Ground
I wasn’t prepared to meet a condemned man.  In 1983, I was a twenty-three-year-old student at Harvard Law School working in Georgia on an internship, eager and inexperienced and worried that I was in over my head.  I had never seen the inside of a maximum-security prison – and had certainly never been to death row.  When I learned that I would be visiting this prisoner alone, with no lawyer accompanying me, I tried not to let my panic show.

* * * * * *

Titles and authors revealed:

Book 1
Lamentations, by Jeremiah.  ©586–520 BCE.
It is customary among some Jews to read the book of Lamentations during the period between some fast I never heard of and the fast of the 9th of Av (which memorializes the destruction of The Temple).  Lamentations seems appropriate for us today, too.

Book 2
Still Life, by Louise Penny © 2005.  Read for the second time, for book club.  I still wonder if the painting that is so central to the story would be actually possible to paint. 

Book 3
The Future Is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, by Masha Gessen. © 2017. Very well-written.  Amazon says this is a 527-page book, but I read it in 5 days, although that was partly because it was a kindle version borrowed from the library, and it threatened to disappear from my reader if I did not truck on through it. 

The subject matter is unsettling and alarming.  Anyone who thinks they admire Putin and his Russia needs to read this book. It includes the stories of several people living through the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Putin’s regime. 

It also includes a Cliff-notes version of Hannah Arendt’s explanation of how totalitarian regimes employ terror: It substitutes for the boundaries and channels of communication between men a band of iron which holds them so tightly together that it is as though their plurality had disappeared into One Man of gigantic dimensions.” Robbed of his individuality and therefore the ability to interact meaningfully with others, she wrote, man became profoundly lonely, which made him the perfect creature and subject of the totalitarian state.

I wonder if Arendt’s notions about loneliness relate to Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam.  I have that on my list to read. 

Book 4
On The River (Bassville Stories Book 2) by Melissa Westemeier © 2018.
I loved escaping to the riverbanks of the Wissapaw River in Wisconsin, to read about the lives of the fine people of the town of Bassville.  The machinations of Maw made me laugh out loud.  The novel includes a just treatment of people’s reactions to a difficult life situation.

Book 5
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, by Bryan Stevenson.  © 2014.  What can I say?  Every American should read this book.  (I read it for book club.  It was helpful to discuss the book.) The stories here are gripping and important, and Stevenson tells them well.  He leads us through our justice system, which is no more “color-blind” now than it was in 1980 or 1940 or 1880.  Can we find “liberty and justice for all” in our nation?  And yet, in spite of our brutal history, Stevenson offers a note of redemption. Mercy is an undeserved offering of grace and forgiveness, and Stevenson finds mercy in the middle of terrorism and strife and injustice.  Read This Book.

Monday, August 20, 2018

What we learned: 2018 edition, part 2

Freshman year of college, Part 2

Quick, before we drop Younger Daughter off for her sophomore year of college, here’s what she learned during spring semester of her freshman year.


- - - - - Rhetoric with Bitzer and Burke, Oh my! - - - - -

YD: On to second semester.  I had my Rhetoric class!  In which I learned about Bitzer and Burke and the awesomeness of my T.A.  He was so epic. He was amazingly epic.

Me:  (to my Husband) “He was so epic.” That’s what we have to say about people now.

Husband:   Did you fill out a student evaluation?

YD:   I did.  He was also unfortunately the one who recommended that I go to that speaking competition.

Me:  You should go to the speaking competition.

Husband:  No, you shouldn’t.

YD:  Thank you, Dad.  Thank you for being on my side.

Me:  But you speak for the Lorax! 

YD:   Do I?

Me:  Yes!  Don’t you remember when you got the Lorax Award at Girl Scout Camp?!

Husband:  The trees have got to learn to stand up for themselves.

YD:  They should grow some roots and a spine!

Me: (pulling us back from the brink of punanity) So, Rhetoric.  What else?

YD:  We learned this whole cool thing about behavioral interactions. It was this idea that humans can change their opinions based on who is talking to them and not just based on the facts at hand, and it’s a really cool thing. 

Me:  Humans are totally unreasonable.  Totally susceptible to influence.

YD:  It’s so cool to learn about influence and how to use it.

Husband:  (defiantly):  Not me! You can’t influence me!

YD:  It’s actually been proven that that makes you easier to influence. 

- - - - - O-Chem, the overflowing unloved class - - - - -

YD: We had the second half of the Phages class, in which I learned that it is physically impossible to make teaching annotation interesting.

O-Chem was a bit of a different thing.  I learned that my brother is the most fantastic amazing older brother in the universe, even though I knew that already. 

[Her brother, while searching for a job as a chemical engineer, is doing a bang-up job as a tutor in many subjects, science and math.  He provided O-Chem tutoring to his sister gratis.]

The O-Chem professor was so passionate, and so into it!  You know, the chemistry department has one of the smallest group of graduating majors but O-Chem takes up these huge classrooms because everyone needs it for their bio majors, and none of us want to be there.  That guy was so sweet.  I feel bad for him. ….

- - - - - We Heart Genetics - - - - -

Then we had the Literature of the Americas class, in which I learned it is relatively easy to sweet-talk your professor if you are actually interested in what they are saying. 

Me: (to my Husband) Do you concur, Professor?

Husband:  No.  I am not subject to influence.

YD:  I learned that you really should stop talking whenever you really didn’t like a book and your professor really liked a book. 

At Bell Choir I found that you can have friends and they can be great people, and then they will graduate.  And then you will have more friends. 

Genetics!  Genetics is so cool!  I won’t go on a rant like I did last year. (Nevertheless, YD’s speech pace speeds up and tone goes up with excitement.) It was just like, like, I love genetics!  I love everything to do with the genome!   

[There followed a massive, excited speech about genetics.]

…. And we learned about telomeres and all this cool amazing stuff.  It was SOO cool.  And I got an A.  Which I was very happy with because I was convinced I was going to get a B. 

Me: Okay.

YD:   I went on a rant again.  I’m sorry.  (happy sigh)
And I continued with my lab work in the second semester.  In which I learned that it is okay to move on. 

Me: What do you mean?

YD: I mean, even if you spent a lot of time and effort getting to where you are, it is okay to move on from it.

- - - - -

And so, Dear Reader, in three days we move on to sophomore year!

That bell choir played some pretty complicated music.
(You can read about First Semester here.)

What we learned: 2018 edition, part 1

A wise owl would not be sitting out in the snow like that.

Freshman year of college: Part 1

Younger Daughter:  You never asked me what I learned this past school year.

Me:  I guess I’ve been too busy.  (Looking at Husband) I need to ask you what you learned this school year.

Husband:  I learned I should have been born eight years earlier.  Then I could retire this year and I wouldn’t have to move my office.  [The current building is being renovated.  Most of the staff have had to move to another location, for the next two years.  Moving was a harrowing process.]

            * * * * * * *


- - - - - Chemistry, Poetry, and Phages, Oh my! - - - - -

Me (formally asking YD my annual question):  What did you learn in school this year?

YD:  What class should we begin with?  What classes did I even take?

Husband:  (asking his annual question) Did you take Eastern Philosophy?

YD:  No. … Let’s begin with first semester.  That would be a logical place to start.  First semester I had Chem 2.

Husband:    This cake is really good.

YD:  I learned that chemistry is no easier even when you learn it the third time. 
In Poetry class, I learned that I am (sigh), according to my teacher, too thoughtful of a writer.  Like I’m too wrapped up in my own ideas.

Husband:    Well, duh.  I could have told you that.

YD: (voice rises with excitement) Oh, I had my Phages class!  I got to dig around in the dirt which is really, really fun!  We learned about the biology of phagi!  And we learned about how to extrapolate them from the soil.  We did a bake ’n’ shake.  That was my conduit to getting my first lab job.

- - - - - Great Books and Jam - - - - -

YD: (returning to a less animated tone of voice) I had my first college essay class, the Great Books class, in which I learned I am not as great an essay writer as I thought I was.  … But the books were really, really good.  I finally got to read all the way through Homer –  it was so interesting.  He’s such a good writer.  He’s The Jam.

Husband:    The Jam? 

YD:  The Jam.

Husband:  As in, the jam on your peanut butter sandwich?  I’ve never heard that expression.

YD:  You’ve never heard of something being someone’s jam?  You need to be hip with the kids.

- - - - - Holocaust class and the Judenrat exercise - - - - -

Me: Did you have a Holocaust class?

YD:  Yes! That was an amazing class.  I don’t even know where to begin.  (She takes a moment to think.)  I learned that human beings can disappoint you in more ways than one.  (Deep sigh.) Not even just in the stories we were being told.  Some of my classmates’ behavior was not acceptable to me.

Husband:  The Holocaust doesn’t affect people who are not Jewish in the same way.

YD: Yeah, and I don’t know why.  It could have happened to anybody.

Husband:  It didn’t happen to just anybody.

Me:  What was the unacceptable behavior on the part of your classmates?

YD: They did not treat the stuff we were learning with respect, I felt. There was a situation in our class where we were given an exercise to pick and choose people who would go to their death.

Husband:    Wow!

YD:  We were role-playing as the Judenrat, figuring out who would stay and who would go.   The people I was doing it with – it didn’t even seem to resonate with them that this actually happened and that we …

Me: They were joking around?

YD:   They did it flippantly, like, oh, we’ll send the 7-year-old girl, oh, we’ll send the rabbi.  It doesn't matter what we decide. 

Me: It was probably too awful a thing to have to think about.  And they had to act that way as a defense mechanism.

YD:  Maybe.  It just irked me.

Husband:  It’s hard to imagine it being real. It’s like a fantasy.

YD: Yeah. And then, the ultimate irony was that they spent the rest of the class time talking about why they were failing the class. And their main complaint seemed to be that the teacher was being unfair to them.

Up next - Second Semester of freshman year