Sunday, January 14, 2018

First Lines: Sep and Oct 2017 Edition

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 lines

Book 1
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.

Book 2
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.

Book 3
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.

Book 4
For my thirty-third birthday, I wanted breakfast with Mark Twain. 

Book 5
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)

Book 6
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.

Book 7
The Veil
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

Book 1
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.

Book 2
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.

Book 3
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.

Book 4
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?

Book 5
Simply Jesus, by N.T. Wright.  Good.  But I think I need to start reading other theologians’ thoughts.

Book 6
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. 

Book 7
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.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Explanations, Common Household Style

These are conversations from last year, when there were more children around the house.

"Surprised Egg"
Sketch in pen
by Younger Daughter, 2012

Scientific Method, Common Household style
My husband and son were telling me about their meal at IHOP.  (An aside: this is a thing in the Common Household: discussing past meals, as if they are an important part of history.) My son was astonished that the waitress offered them hot sauce.

Husband:  Some people like hot sauce with their eggs.  But maybe you could just feed hot sauce directly to the chickens, and then you wouldn’t have to add the hot sauce to the eggs.  Or maybe you could even make spicy chicken that way!
Me:  Tandoori chicken from the inside out.
Younger Daughter:  We need to do this experiment.  With goats as a control.
Son:  Why are goats the control?
Husband, pointing out the obvious:  To see if they can generalize to non-avian species.
The use of the words "goat" and "control" in the same
sentence seems unusual.

* * * * * * *

Economics, Common Household Style
Husband:  Why did the Vikings die out?  Well. Their economy depended heavily on walrus tusks… But then someone discovered elephant tusks in Africa, and the elephant tusks were bigger than the walrus tusks, so the Viking economy failed. 
Me:  I think NPR is trying out an April 1st story a little early.

* * * * * * *

Foreign Policy, Common Household Style
Husband:  The Pharmacy School is going to Make America Great Again!
Me:    Oh, yeah?  What are you going to do about Syria?
Husband:    We’re going to sprinkle cocaine all over.  Everyone in Syria will be happy again. And then they will become addicted and they will be willing to do anything we want in order to get their next fix.  That’s the School of Pharmacy solution.

* * * * * * *

Agricultural Economics, Common Household Style
Younger Daughter was describing a question on her economics final exam.

YD:  The question on the exam was: the farmer can plant either corn or soy, and the price of corn increases.  What will happen to the price of soy?
Me:  It depends on a lot of things.  It’s complicated.
YD:  Yes!
Husband: The price for soybeans stays high because nobody eats soybeans.
Me:   Cows eat soybeans and corn.
Husband:  So if we ate more cows then it will drive the price of soybeans down because there will be fewer cows and therefore less demand for soy.
YD:   No, there would be more demand for soybeans because demand for cows would go up.  So we would plant more soybeans.
Husband:   Why can’t you combine the DNA of soy and corn, and then you can plant that crop.  We can call it…..
YD:    Scorn!
Me: Scorn has already been planted everywhere in our nation.
Husband:   The US will be exporting scorn to China. And Korea. We will fill our trade deficit with scorn.

* * * * * * *

And I will leave it at that, because it does seem that this week, the president planted scorn all across our nation, and is exporting it everywhere.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

First Lines: July and August 2017 edition

More for my own sake that anything else, here are the first lines of the books I finished during July and August of last year.

Reading in summertime (2012)

Book 1
I’m surrounded by thousands of words.  Maybe millions.

Book 2
Chapter One: Archery and the Race Issue
My Family
My life has been shaped inevitably by the experiences and decisions of my forefathers, and I have learned a lot about my family history.  My mother was Bessie Lillian Gordy, and I knew all her intimate relatives and many of her distant cousins. 

Book 3
 “Education is an admirable thing,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”  In dark moments while writing this book, I sometimes feared that Wilde might be right.

Book 4
“Take one hundred people,” said Isabel.
Jamie nodded.  “One hundred.”
“Now, out of those one hundred,” Isabel continued, “how many will mean well?”

Book 5
In the eight years since I came to Washington, probably the question I’ve been asked more than any other is some version of this: “Is being a United States senator as much fun as working on Saturday Night Live?” The answer has always been NO!!! Why would it be?

Book 6
The Hearth and the Salamander
It was a pleasure to burn.

Book 7
It had begun to seem to Graham, in this, the twelfth year of his second marriage, that he and his wife lived in parallel universes. And worse, it seemed his universe was lonely and arid, and hers was densely populated with armies of friends and acquaintances and other people he did not know.

Book 8
The Science Unit of Destiny
There’s this totally false map of the human tongue.  It’s supposed to show where we taste different things, like salty on the side of the tongue, sweet in the front, bitter in the back. Some guy drew it a hundred years ago, and people have been forcing kids to memorize it ever since.
            But it’s wrong – all wrong.

The titles and authors

Book 1
Out of My Mind, by Sharon M. Draper
The main character is Melody Brooks, a girl with cerebral palsy, confined to wheelchair and unable to speak, but quite able to hear and understand.   This was a good read, a YA book for our summer mother-daughter book club. 

Book 2
A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety, by Jimmy Carter.  This book was a disappointment.  The writing was flat.  It left me wanting to know more details about everything described.  Perhaps the details are in a previous work by President Carter.  He’s only written about 32 books.

Book 3
The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker.  I really liked this book.  I am a word nerd.

Book 4
The Careful Use of Compliments, by Alexander McCall Smith (Isabel Dalhousie #4).  It’s always a good and philosophical time, reading the Isabel Dalhousie books.

Book 5
Al Franken: Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken, giant of the Senate.  I read it for our other book club, back in simpler times.  I guess he is not such a giant after all.

Book 6
Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury.  This was also for our mother-daughter summer book club.  Why do The Youth like dystopian fiction?  The prose is poetic and often biblical, the topic disturbing and prescient.

Here's a good analysis of the book: Thug Notes . 

Technology and culture that Bradbury portrays:
- Books are illegal; firemen start fires to burn books, rather than putting fires out.
- Houses are fireproof
- Cars must drive very fast
- 200-foot long billboards
- All four walls of a room covered with video screens.  Constant video entertainment.  Three dimensional TV.
- Pumping drugs out of people’s blood (attempted suicide) is routine.
- The Mechanical Hound – can chase people down and paralyze them with an injection.
- Distrust of intellectuals
- Constant advertisements  (“Denham’s Dentifrice”)
- Jesus has become commercialized.
- Bombers constantly flying overhead
- Nuclear war
- No more newspapers
- Constant mindless entertainment
- Earpiece listening device.

How many of these have come true or look quite possible?

Book 7
Standard Deviation, A novel by Katherine Heiny.  I found it quite funny, with some tragic moments.  Includes origami, adulting, autism, tense holidays, infidelity, statistical concepts, and fooooood.

Book 8
Liar and Spy, by Rebecca Stead (children’s fiction)
Main character’s name is Georges (with an “s”).  He is named after Georges Seurat, the French painter.  Georges’ Dad loses his job and the family has to move from their house to an apartment.  In the apartment building he meets a boy who gets him to join his “spy club”.  I recall that it had some unexpected twists.

That carries me through my reading for last summer.  It’s great to think about summer right now.  Outside it’s a frigid 6°, and even inside, it’s cold.   It seems like a good time to crawl into bed with a good book.  I hope everyone has one of each.