More self-documentation of my reading habits last year. I finished only two books in September, because of intense political activity and Jewish holidays. But in October, book clubs spurred me to read on.
FIRST LESSON: The Most Beautiful of Theories
In his youth Albert Einstein spent a year loafing aimlessly. You don’t get anywhere by not “wasting” time—something, unfortunately, that the parents of teenagers tend frequently to forget.
In 1929, three decades into what were the great years for the blue-collar town of Portsmouth, on the Ohio River, a private swimming pool opened and they called it Dreamland. The pool was the size of a football field.
Chapter 1: A Good Café on the Place St. Michel
Then there was the bad weather. It would come in one day when the fall was over. You would have to shut the windows in the night against the rain and the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe. The leaves lay sodden in the rain and the wind drove the rain against the big green autobus at the terminal and the Café des Amateurs was crowded and the windows misted over from the heat and the smoke inside.
For my thirty-third birthday, I wanted breakfast with Mark Twain.
Part One, I: A Very Odd Sort of King
“As Jesus was going along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. When he came to the descent of the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began to celebrate and praise God at the tops of their voices” (Luke 19:36-37)
Chapter 1: Where Do Old Birds Go To Die?
She lived in the graveyard like a tree. At dawn she saw the crows off and welcomed the bats home. At dusk she did the opposite. Between shifts she conferred with the ghosts of vultures that loomed in her high branches.
This is me when I was 10 years old. This was in 1980.
And this is a class photo. I’m sitting on the far left so you don’t see me. From left to right: Golnaz, Mahsid, Narine, Minna.
In 1979 a revolution took place. It was later called “the Islamic Revolution.”
Then came 1980: The year it became obligatory to wear the veil at school.
The titles and authors
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, by Carlo Rovelli.
This very short book (96 pages) might possibly blow your mind. The year 2017 to me seemed like a disturbance in the universe, but consider these ideas:
Heisenberg imagined that electrons do not always exist. They only exist when someone or something watches them, or better, when they are interacting with something else. They materialize in a place, with a calculable probability, when colliding with something else. The “quantum leaps” from one orbit to another are the only means they have of being “real”: an electron is a set of jumps from one interaction to another.
* * * * *
There’s a paradox at the heart of our understanding of the physical world. The twentieth century gave us the two gems of which I have spoken: general relativity and quantum mechanics. From the first cosmology developed, as well as astrophysics, the study of gravitational waves, of black holes, and much else besides. The second provided the foundation for atomic physics, nuclear physics, the physics of elementary particles, the physics of condensed matter, and much, much more. Two theories, profligate in their gifts, which are fundamental to today’s technology and have transformed the way we live. And yet the two theories cannot both be right, at least in their current forms, because they contradict each other.
Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, by Sam Quinones.
Disturbing subject matter. Somewhat repetitive – how many times do I need to read a sentence that says “Mexicans from Nayarit delivered heroin like pizza.” But perhaps the author needs to make his point that this addiction is relentless and everywhere and complicated.
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway.
Published posthumously in 1964 by his fourth wife, Mary Hemingway, 3 years after Hem’s death. The version I read was a revised edition, published in 2009 by his grandson. This book is a memoir written about his years as a writer in Paris in the 1920s. It includes Hemingway’s friendships with, among others, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. The memoir was unfinished at Hemingway’s death – he had written neither the opening nor the conclusion, at least not in a way satisfactory to him. I wonder if this is why the book seems to start in the middle, or if the opening in my version is that way on purpose. This book includes delightfully snarky portrayals of these Americans who hung out in Europe in the 1920s. For book club.
Twain’s Feast: Searching for America’s Lost Foods in the Footsteps of Samuel Clemens, by Andrew Beahrs. (2010)
I borrowed this book from the library in summer 2017 because the library’s “Summer Book Bingo” included a category for books about food. But I didn’t crack it open until I was on my way to the library to return it. I saw this epigraph:
“If I have a talent it is for contributing valuable matter to works upon cookery.”
- Mark Twain.
And that immediately made me want to read the book after all. This book uses some of Twain’s remarks and experiences about food and cuisine as a springboard to examine changes in American food production and tastes over the past 100+ years. I found it to be enjoyable and informative.
The author ventures to eat such things as raccoon, prairie chicken, and sheephead (a kind of fish). He also reseeds San Francisco Bay with oysters and does some weeding at an organic cranberry farm. Did you know that the abolitionist Benjamin Rush hoped that homemade maple sugar production would become prevalent, so that it could replace the trade of white sugar (from sugarcane), which was part of the slave trade?
Simply Jesus, by N.T. Wright. Good. But I think I need to start reading other theologians’ thoughts.
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy.
This was very difficult reading. I liked the characters – the portrayal of a hijra community in India is fascinating – but the story line was quite complicated and hard to follow. The violence was overwhelming to me. We read it for book club.
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood, by Marjane Satrapi (graphic memoir).
This is the book that made me realize that I am now “the print is too small” years old. Is it possible to get a large-print version of a graphic novel? I was glad I read it, though, as the graphic memoir format made the story of the 1979 Iranian revolution accessible. I read this for the other book club.