Sunday, July 25, 2021

First Lines: June 2021 edition

I finished 7 books in June.  One was a children’s book and one was a graphic memoir.   Below are the first lines.  The graphic memoir was quite excellent.



Book 1

The Vegetable Lamb of Tartary

         In the middle part of the fourteenth century, a text purporting to be the travel memoirs of an English knight named Sir John Mandeville began to circulate among the learned of Europe.  Mandeville, the text claimed, had traveled through Asia Minor, northern Africa, and into India and had experienced many things unknown in Western Europe.  Among these wonders was an Indian tree bearing gourdlike fruit, within which could be found tiny lambs, complete with flesh and blood.


Book 2

Three hundred miles up the Mississippi River from its mouth – many parishes above New Orleans and well north of Baton Rouge – a navigation lock in the Mississippi’s right bank allows ships to drop out of the river.



Book 3

This book is not about a love affair with the culture and antiquities of India.


 Book 4

The Man in the Crowd

There is a famous black-and-white photograph from the era of the Third Reich.


Book 5

Santa Fe Railway

Southeast Kansas

May 27, 1936

The movement of the train rocked me like a lullaby.  I closed my eyes to the dusty countryside and imagined the sign I knew only from stories.  The one just outside of town with big blue letters:  MANIFEST: A TOWN WITH A RICH PAST AND A BRIGHT FUTURE.


Book 6

I learned about a lot of things in medical school, but mortality wasn’t one of them.

Book 7

I Was Six


[Sketches of the city from a distance, then gradually focusing on one house, then inside the house]

The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

The Misinformation Age - How False Beliefs Spread, by Cailin O'Connor and James Owen Weatherall.  ©2019.  279 pages.  197 pages of text.  

This book was okay, but I was rather overwhelmed by the many presentations of Bayes’ theorem-based models and such.  My reading of it suffered from stopping halfway through and then deciding to resume.  I didn’t get anything helpful out of it.



Book 2

The Control of Nature is a 1989 book (272 pages) by John McPhee that chronicles three attempts to control natural processes. It is divided into three long essays, "Atchafalaya", "Cooling the Lava", and "Los Angeles Against the Mountains" (three essays previously published in The New Yorker).  I read it for book club, and keep thinking about it, as climate change shows mastery over humans.


Book 3

In Spite of the Gods: The Rise of Modern India by Edward Luce.  448 pages.  2008.  

I speed read this because I wanted to read something that might explain caste before reading Wilkerson’s book, and because what I know about India is stuck in the 20th century.  Even since the writing of this book India has changed a lot, with the BJP coming back into power, and then in 2021 tragically being struck hard by the covid virus.


Book 4

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. 496 pages. © 2020.

I may publish a more extensive review at some point.  Using the language of caste for historical and current social structures of the US is powerful and revealing.   However, I found Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns to be more compelling than this book, perhaps because I thought this one relies too often on metaphors.


Book 5

Moon Over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool (children’s lit). © 2010.  363 pages.  (Newbery Medal Winner) 

This book includes the KKK and illicit alcohol.  Would your local school district ban it from the reading list?   I enjoyed the characters, plot, and writing.  


Book 6

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. © 2014.  257 pages.

I read this because my aunt and about a thousand other people told me to.   At first, I was angry - the author seemed to be going in the direction that India is doing it all right and the US is doing it all wrong when it comes to how the elderly are treated.  The situation he describes for his grandfather relies on the (unpaid) labor, resources, and goodwill of many, but Gawande does eventually recognize this fact.  

Gawande’s book reinforces the point that Viktor Frankl makes in Man's Search for Meaning  - having a purpose in life is crucial for human thriving.

Gawande makes the point that we are misspending our health resources.  My own anecdote:  My father contracted Parkinson’s Disease.  After a while he was wheelchair bound, lost the ability to walk, and could stand only with the assistance of three trained people.  He relished the opportunity to stand, and received the needed assistance through physical therapists for a short time.  It was such a relief to him to stand up!  But after only a few weeks, that particular physical therapy ended because he was not “making progress.”  Damn it.  He had a degenerative disease and of course he was not going to make progress.  The relief of standing was taken away because Medicare would not pay for it.  If Medicare doesn't cover it, it ain't gonna happen. To be fair, there were other therapies that helped him that did continue for a longer time.  

As Gawande says:

A few months after he published the results, demonstrating how much better people’s lives were with specialized geriatric care, the university closed the division of geriatrics.


On average, in Boult’s study, the geriatric services cost the hospital $1,350 more per person than the savings they produced, and Medicare, the insurer for the elderly, does not cover that cost. It’s a strange double standard. No one insists that a $25,000 pacemaker or a coronary-artery stent save money for insurers. It just has to maybe do people some good.


Book 7

Stitches: A Memoir, by David Small (graphic memoir)  © 2009.  329 pages.

Do not read the liner notes unless you love spoilers!  Do not even look!

This book was quite moving and excellent.  Adult themes.  I read it because the library book bingo had “graphic novel” on one of the squares.  My daughter picked it out for me.

Monday, July 5, 2021

History of These United States, the month of July, since 1900

Selections from the Equal Justice Initiative History of Racial Injustice calendar.  I’ve chosen historical items from after 1900. 

This is the month of the murders of Alton Sterling (July 5, 2016), Philando Castile (one day later, on July 6, 2016), and Eric Garner (2 years earlier on July 17, 2014).   They were killed by police officers.

From the month of July

July 3, 1917

Four days of attacks on African Americans in East St. Louis, Illinois, leave 200 dead and cause 6,000 Black residents to flee the city.

July 5, 2016

Baton Rouge, Louisiana, police officers shoot and kill Alton Sterling, a 37-year-old Black man, while he is pinned to the ground; video of the shooting leads to major protests nationwide.

July 6, 2016

Police officer shoots and kills Philando Castile, 32-year-old Black man, during a traffic stop for a broken taillight in St. Paul, Minnesota, with his fiancee and her four-year-old daughter in the car.

July 18, 1946

World War II veteran Maceo Snipes is shot in the back at his home by Ku Klux Klan members the day after he became the first Black person to cast a vote in Taylor County, Georgia.

July 26, 1918

A mob of 100 white men and boys protests against a Black woman named Adella Bond for moving into a mostly white neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, leading to days of violence and arrests.

Added - not in the Equal Justice Initiative calendar:
In July 1963, Black girls aged 12-15 engaged in civil rights demonstration - buying tickets to a movie theater at the front instead of the back.  They were arrested and were imprisoned in secret locations for nearly two months without being charged with a crime.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

First Lines: May 2021 edition

Below are the first lines of the books I finished reading in May.  There are seven books here, including two children's books.



Book 1

The Field

Here is what happened one Monday in the month of September, in the last year of the last century. Matthew, Zoe, and Duncan Lang were on their way home from school. Usually they took the bus from the larger town, where they attended secondary school, to the smaller town, where they lived, but that morning their father had said he had an errand to run and would collect them.



Book 2

Trefan Morys is the name of my house in Wales, and I’ll tell you frankly, to me much the most interesting thing about it is the fact that it is in Wales. 



Book 3

People Do Strange Things

It was the first time that Paul had made duck à l’orange for friends since Becky left him for her personal trainer.


Book 4

Read by almost everyone at school, staged in theaters across the land, and long valued by conservatives as highly as by liberals, Shakespeare’s plays remain common ground, one of the few places where Americans can meet and air their disparate views.



Book 5

Henry Huggins was in the third grade.  His hair looked like a scrubbing brush, and most of his grown-up front teeth were in.


Book 6

May 12

Dear Mr. Henshaw,

My teacher read your book about the dog to our class.  It was funny.  We licked it.

Your freind,

Leigh Botts (boy)

Book 7

My birth certificate says that I was born on September 8, 1946, in Ziegenhain, Germany. It’s the wrong date, wrong city, wrong country.

The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

The Boy in the Field, by Margot Livesey. © 2020.   268 pages.

Excellent writing.  My reading of this book suffered from stopping when I was ¼ of the way through, and then resuming.  Another book (after reading Dutch House) about interesting whip-smart siblings.


Book 2

A Writer’s House in Wales, by Jan Morris  © 2002.  95 pages.

I chose this book because I wanted to read something short that would take me away to a different place.  It served me well.  This writer is a fascinating person.  Her house was most likely more cluttered than mine, which is a feat.  I enjoyed this book.


Book 3

My Italian Bulldozer, by Alexander McCall Smith.  © 2016. 232 pages.  I found it quite amusing.  I love the introspection of McCall Smith’s characters, and their self-justification for poor choices.  Book Club didn’t find it particularly stimulating but it was what I needed. 


Book 4

Shakespeare in a Divided America, by James Shapiro.   © 2020.  306 pages, but the text ends on page 224, followed by reference materials.   I read it too fast.  It’s interesting.  An account of the performance of Julius Caesar in Central Park provides bookends to 7 moments of Shakespearean theater history in America.  

Ulysses S. Grant was slated to play the role of Desdemona, as he was suited to playing female roles on the stage.  But then he went to war and grew a beard.  There was a riot at a theater in NYC in 1849, ostensibly over whether the British or the American Shakespearean actor should prevail on the stage (but it was really a class riot).  The final chapter details Americans’ reaction to the performance of Julius Caesar in late 2016 in the free public theater in Central Park.  It ain’t pretty.


Book 5

Henry Huggins by Beverly Cleary.  © 1950.  155 pages.

A boy and his dog do just fine in the 1950s.


Book 6

Dear Mr. Henshaw, by Beverly Cleary. © 1983.  152 pages.  Read it for book club.


Book 7

I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir,

By Esther Safran Foer.  © 2020.  242 pages.

My review here.  

Book review: I Want You to Know We're Still Here, by Esther Safran Foer


I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir

by Esther Safran Foer.  © 2020.  242 pages.

I found this memoir to be confusing – I couldn't keep track of which relative was which. What can I say? - my concentration is shot these days.  I decided to go with the flow, just soaking in the images and the events, without trying to keep track of the characters.   Once I changed my reading style, I was able to get something out of the book.  

The Foer family is way up there in the ranks of American intellectuals.  From Wikipedia: 

  • Albert Foer, a lawyer and president of the American Antitrust Institute, 

  • Esther Safran Foer worked as press secretary for presidential candidate George McGovern. She founded public-relations firm FM Strategic Communications in 2002 and served as Executive Director of Sixth & I Synagogue from 2007 to 2016.

And their adult children:

  • Franklin Foer is a staff writer at The Atlantic and former editor of The New Republic, commentating on contemporary issues from a liberal perspective.

  • Jonathan Safran Foer is an American novelist. He is known for his novels Everything Is Illuminated, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, Here I Am, and for his non-fiction works Eating Animals and We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. He teaches creative writing at New York University.

  • Joshua Foer is the founder of Atlas Obscura and of Sefaria.

This is the first book I have read by someone in the family, although I frequently use Sefaria when attending torah study.

Esther Safran Foer shares her search for close family members whom she never

knew, because they were killed in the Holocaust.  Her purpose is not just to find

them, but to memorialize them, and to learn about their lives in their small town

in Poland.

Both the Bible and Jewish tradition place great emphasis on the importance of names.  Foer’s quest is spurred partly by the simple need for her to learn the name of her sister whom she never knew.  It is a privilege not available to everyone to be able to know the names of previous generations.  

One of the reasons the book was confusing to me is that people changed names, for instance when they emigrated, or were known by more than one name all along.  It is a poignant moment when Foer discovers her sister’s name.

I had a revelatory moment near the end of the book that relates to me trying to reconcile myself to the loss of democracy that is likely to happen to us in the next few years. 

In the biblical book of Exodus, before Moses ventures back to Egypt to free the Israelites, Moses asks God, What?!  Who, me?  I can’t free the people from Pharaoh!   God replies, You’ll know that you will be able to do it, after you have freed the people and you come to worship me on the mountain.  

Come on, now, God! That’s really nothing at all to go on – no proof for this moment, before attempting the difficult feats ahead.  Moses is forced to have faith that he will, one day, be worshipping on the mountain with the freed people.


At the end of this book by Foer, as the family is burying the matriarch – the sole member of her immediate family who survived the holocaust  –  one of the grandchildren observes the large number of family members celebrating the long life of the matriarch, and says, “Take that, Hitler!”  While Hitler & Co were able to inflict death and terror on many, including Foer’s immediate family, the Foer family’s subsequent generations are proof that Hitler’s small-minded vision of humanity did not ultimately win against that family.

Likewise, I am forced to believe that democracy will prevail, although it may take a long time to get there, and there may be a horrible detour, from which I wish I could spare my children and all children. (I’m trying to help us avoid that horrible detour, but I’m only powerful enough to do it when you join in the effort.)  Moses did worship on the mountain, as God had promised.   We must proceed with faith.  

The rest of the books I finished during May 2021 at this link.