Tuesday, August 2, 2022

First Lines: July 2022 edition

Below are the first lines of the books I finished reading in July.  This past month included a fun trip to Boston to visit family, a joyful event (our daughter's wedding), and then the inevitable aftermath: covid.



Book 1

Book One: A Nice Little Family

Chapter 1: Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov

Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov was the third son of a landowner from our district, Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, well known in his own day (and still remembered among us) because of his dark and tragic death, which happened exactly thirteen years ago and which I shall speak of in its proper place.



Book 2

This happened back in March of 2010, when the Philadelphia train station still had the kind of information board that clickety-clacked as the  various gate assignments rolled up.


Book 3

You know the story of the Three Wise Men of the East, and how they traveled from far away to offer their gifts at the manger-cradle in Bethlehem.  But have you ever heard the story of the Other Wise Man, who also saw the star in its rising, and set out to follow it, yet did not arrive with his brethren in the presence of the young child Jesus?



Book 4

Tom Langdon was a journalist, a globetrotting one, because it was in his blood to roam widely.  Where others saw only instability and fear in life, Tom felt graced by an embracing independence.


Book 5

It’s hard to imagine modern life without the crossword.  The puzzle originated in 1913, and it soon became part of the fabric of daily existence. 




The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear.  First published 1879.  This translation first published 1990.  815 pages.   

I’d like to say something pithy about this book but I can’t because I just had covid.  And I read this in the BC period (Before Covid).  (I am now on Day 8, feeling much better, thank you, and tested negative.)

I first read The Brothers Karamazov when I was in high school, but not for a class, so I had no guidance to help me through.  The main thing I remember is that it was full of over-emotional characters.  The main phrase was:

“(some exclamation),” Dmitri cried. 

Dmitri was always crying, that is, crying out. I believe it was the Constance Garnet translation.  When I read it 40+ years ago, I did not understand it well. 

I thought maybe if I read it in a newer translation I might get better insights, so I bought this translation for my kindle in 2019.  I started reading it in April 2022. This new translation seems to bring forth the narrator’s voice - it’s got a sardonic tone to it.  The text seems to flow well, and the notes are helpful.  But it is still full of over-emotional characters.  

The B.K. reminded me of Wuthering Heights.  It’s about one hugely messed up family who do terrible things to each other, and the characters’ names are fiendishly hard to keep track of.  Then add in a whole lot of musings about the Russian church and God and the devil, and you’ve got yourself a fine Russian classic.  At least there is Alyosha to give us all hope for humanity. 

Fun fact:  In the 1958 movie version Alyosha was played by William Shatner.  Also starring Yul Brynner as Dmitri and Lee J. Cobb as the depraved father Fyodor.

An example of a Dostoevskian sentence:

And at such moments he was glad that nearby, close at hand, maybe not in the same room but in the cottage, there was such a man, firm, devoted, not at all like himself, not depraved, who, though he saw all this depravity going on and knew all the secrets, still put up with it out of devotion, did not protest, and – above all – did not reproach him or threaten him with anything either in this age or in the age to come; and who would defend him if need be – from whom?


Book 2

French Braid, by Anne Tyler.  Published 2022.  244 pages.

The story begins on the train from Philly to Baltimore, so I loved the book from the start.  It’s about a kind of flaky family, with children of such vastly different personalities that it is amazing the family can still be together, although they don’t see much of each other.  I read this for book club, and we concluded together that it is not the best Anne Tyler book, but I enjoyed it.


Book 3

The Story of the Other Wise Man, by Henry Van Dyke.  Published 1895.  28 pages (short story).

Part of my self-assigned “Winter reading in July”.  This was a charming tale, quite short.  


Book 4

The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci.  Published 2002. 273 pages.

Part of “Winter reading in July”.  I enjoyed this book – good characters, plot twists and turns, railroads, and a happy ending.



Book 5

Thinking Inside The Box by Adrienne Raphel   248 pages.  Copyright 2020.

The history and current standing of the crossword puzzle.  Many mentions of Will Shortz.  The weirdest thing was the description of the crossword puzzle cruise.  This was a good book to read while lying in bed with covid.

Friday, July 8, 2022

First Lines: June 2022 edition


Before getting to the first lines, I have a question.  What is a great book club book that you have read within the past year?

Below are the first lines of the three books I finished reading in June, all of which featured women and girls figuring out how to do life despite the obstacles in front of them.  



Book 1

November 28, 1905

Princeton, New Jersey

The Old North bell tolls the hour, and I realize that I’ll be late.  I long to break into a sprint, my voluminous skirts lifted, my legs flying along the Princeton University pathways.



Book 2

Reviving Ophelia was my attempt to understand my experiences as a mother of a teenage daughter and a therapist for adolescent girls.


Book 3

On November 21, 2019, I walked through the door of Room 1100 of the Longworth Office Building in Washington D.C., to appear before the House Intelligence Committee. 




The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

The Personal Librarian by Marie Benedict, Victoria Christopher Murray.  347 pages.  2021.

The book started slowly, but about half-way through the pace picked up.  The characters and plot were interesting.  Based on historical persons.  I read it for book club.


Book 2

 Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (25th Anniversary Edition), by Mary Pipher, PhD, and Sara Pipher Gilliam.  Published 2019.  399 pages.

Difficult material, but well presented.  I had to skip some chapters because the subject matter was too difficult for me.  It made for a helpful, deep, and searing discussion at book club.   Mary Pipher is adamantly against social media.


Book 3

There is Nothing For You Here, by Fiona Hill.  Published 2021.  432 pages. 

This is the memoir of the expert on Russia who testified to Congress related to the first impeachment of President Donald Trump.  She has an interesting story.  Some of it is a bit repetitive but the overall main points are good ones, I think.



Working on 

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear.  First published 1879.  This translation first published 1990.  796 pages.

Up to about page 531 (Part III, Book Nine; 62% of the total) by end of June.  The murder has now occurred.  Dmitri Karamazov is being questioned.


Did not finish 

Notes from a Small Island, by Bill Bryson. Published 1995.   322 pages. Nonfiction.

I thought this book would be mostly about Scotland.  I read a few chapters and there was nothing about Scotland.  Those chapters  were quite amusing, so I might return to it.  But I had other more pressing reading assignments, and library books appeared on my kindle before expected.  And I kinda wanted to read about Scotland.

Please do let me know what you are reading these days.

Thursday, June 16, 2022

First Lines: May 2022 edition

Below are the first lines of the three books I finished reading in May.  It’s a small list, but the list of offenses against women and against humanity in general were large last month.  And we had an election.  I won my seat on the Democratic Committee (unopposed). The entire state’s Republican party elected an anti-democracy anti-woman insurrectionist White Christian nationalist as their candidate for governor.   It’s no wonder I can’t concentrate on reading.



Book 1

I have a pact with myself not to think about money in the morning.  I’m like a teenager trying not to think about sex.  But I’m also trying not to think about sex.  Or Luke.  Or death.  Which means not thinking about my mother, who died on vacation last winter.


Book 2

There was a dead girl in my aunt’s bakery. 


Book 3

A green and yellow parrot, which hung in a cage outside the door, kept repeating over and over:

“Allez vous-en!  Allez vous-en!  Sapristi!  That’s all right!”



The titles and authors revealed:



Book 1

Writers and Lovers by Lily King. published 2020.  282 pages.

Maybe this is a good book, but I was not in the mood for it.  Given the month’s news about our impending loss of reproductive rights, I did not want to read about contraceptionless sex that apparently had no consequences.  That’s so last century.  I read it for book club but was unable to attend the discussion.  Sometimes the discussion can totally change my mind about a book, but I didn’t have that boost this time.


Book 2

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher. published 2020.  306 pages. 

The tagline on the book says, “Siege.  Sorcery.  Sourdough.”  This was an enjoyable read, given all that is going on in the real world.  It was a page turner at times.  This author also writes under the pen name Ursula Vernon.  The book seemed to me to have moments of clarifying relation to our actual world.  As the author notes in the Acknowledgements section:  “Ironically I am publishing this in the midst of COVID-19, when we all started making sourdough at home and then started protesting police brutality.  Suddenly a twelve year old book was actually relevant.  Go figure.”   I read this book in paperback format, which was a welcome change from reading on the kindle. 


Book 3

The Awakening by Kate Chopin. First published 1899.  162 pages. 

The original title was A Solitary Soul.   The writing style reminds me of another writer, but I can’t place the memory.  The narration is deeply internal to the main character’s thoughts and realizations, all of which seem counter to the prevailing societal norms.  Perhaps the opening lines said by the parrot give a hint of this.  “Allez-vous en!” means “go away” – just what a solitary soul would say.   Google Translate  says “Sapristi!” means “Holy Shit!” 


This short novella was originally condemned for portraying adultery without any moral judgment. There was evidence that the book was banned from a library in 1902.  It was not published again until the 1970s, with the advent of the feminist movement.  All the strictures of being a wife and mother in her time hem in the main character.  I have to admit it is a bit crushing to me that she seems willing to abandon her children. 


Not Finished Yet

The Brothers Karamazov, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Translated by Larissa Volokhonsky, Richard Pevear.  First published 1879.  This translation first published 1990.  796 pages.    Up to about page 300 (37%) by end of May.


Did not finish 

The Rose Code by Kate Quinn. published 2021.  645 pages.

For TOS book club.  The book didn’t grab me, but this might be more me than the book.


The Invention of Yesterday: A 50,000-Year History of Human Culture, Conflict, and Connection by Tamim Ansary.  Published 2019.  449 pages.

I heard this author on some podcast I listened during the Insomnia Hours of the Night, and the premise sounded interesting.  In the book, the author made broad claims about humanity without adequate evidence, in my opinion.  He drew conclusions from ancient Eur-Asian history.  No attempt to see if the claims held up for the ancient history of people in the Americas.  I gave up on this book.


Sunday, June 5, 2022

Weedy Thoughts

The so-called Hillside Garden

The Common Household Husband and I went outside on this day of uncommonly gorgeous weather.  We examined a part of our yard.  This particular plot is what we call “the hillside garden”, a short steep slope near the front of our yard, leading up to the neighbor’s yard. It may not merit being called a garden, as it has poor soil and is too steep to easily pull out weeds or plant new plants.  In the past 20+ years I constantly battled to grow anything beautiful there. Last year I gave up, and now it is overrun with grass, would-be green onions, large nasty-looking weeds, and evil-looking thorny thistlies.  

The same section of Hillside Garden in 2008.
There was columbine, azalea, phlox, and allium (unknown bulbs)

For some reason, this plot of land is deemed to be “my” garden.  I said to the CHH, “This part of my garden used to have phlox and day lilies and snow-in-summer.  Now look at it.  I think the guy who put the mulch on covered up all the good stuff.”

CHH:  I pulled out a lot of things yesterday.

Me: (eager to cast my gardening sins onto anybody else)  Did you pull out any phlox?  Do you even know what phlox looks like?  Nobody knows what phlox foliage looks like.

Phlox, 2011

It’s hard to face the truth, but verily, verily, the sorry state of this garden is not due to anything the landscaper did, nor to the actions of the CHH.


For the desire to do good gardening lies close at hand, but not the ability. For I have erred, and strayed from the ways of good gardening like lost earthworms. I have followed too much the devices and desires of my own heart, sitting around lazily reading novels and looking at cat memes on the internet. I have left undone the weeding which I ought to have done; And there is therefore no health in this garden.

- The Book of Exertions 7:18-20

Then we turned to examine the plot that CHH claims as “his” garden, which is on the eastern side of the house.  For this strip of garden, about two feet wide and running along the side of the house, a few years ago we brought in some excellent soil from elsewhere and started a new garden with fresh and bright new plants.

The Husband's Garden flourisheth.

CHH  Look how wonderful my garden is doing!

Me: Yes, it is.  

His garden is overflowing with healthy plants and many cheery yellow blooms that I don’t know the name of, and vibrant dianthus, which I do know the name of.  This plot requires almost no weeding, and there are no weeds evident now.   

I looked more closely at one spot. 

Photo credit: Common Household Husband.
He titles this photo "Suspicious Mounds".

Me: That’s an anthill right there.

CHH: No, it’s not.

Me:  It’s an anthill.

I was a bit alarmed because of past unpleasant gardening encounters with stinging ants.

CHH:  How do you know?  Are you an epitologist?

Me:  (I paused to try and understand this new field of study)... Umm, what? That’s an anthill, for sure.

CHH:  Are you an epidemiologist?  I mean are you an epistemologist?  How do you know this is an anthill?

Current weeds at the top of the Hillside Garden.
Capitalizing it makes it seem like it should
be in a novel.  Those green onions
could have been ornamental onions, 
but instead, they are a mess.

At that moment, my weedy thoughts had paralyzed my brain’s vocabulary synapses.  I wanted to correct these second and third fields of study that had been introduced in the conversation, but at that moment I could not think of the word “entomologist”.  So instead I studied the anthill more closely, hoping that I had the right glasses, ones that would enable me to see if there were any ants.  A lot of my life these days consists of not having the right glasses on, and not being able to remember the right word.

Me:  Look. There’s one ant, two, three, and another one.  It’s hard to count them because they are moving around.  This anthill is very close to the house.  (A horrible thought occurs to me.)  The ants are probably crawling up inside the wall of the house at this moment!  We’ll have to notify Netflix next time they come out.    Wait, not Netflix…

CHH:  We have to notify The Culligan Man.

Me:  Terminix!  We have to notify Terminix. 

A quick glance at Dr. Google reveals that ants are mostly good for the garden and yard, helping to protect plants against other harmful insects, and also aerating the soil.  These ant mounds are quite close to the house, though, so we have a decision to make.  The likely outcome is that Ant Inertia will move in, and the formicidae will be left alone.

Phlox and hyacinths growing in the
Hillside Garden, 2019

Saturday, May 7, 2022

The Gospel of John, Chapter 21: Breakfast


The Gospel of John, Chapter 21: Breakfast

Read Chapter 21 here.

Since the previous chapter ended with some final-sounding words, this actual last chapter serves as a kind of epilogue or postscript.  

By the Sea of Tiberias (perhaps more familiar to us by one of its other names - the Sea of Galilee) some of the disciples are gathered.  The group includes Simon Peter, Doubting Thomas, The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved (TDWJL), and a few others.  Simon Peter says “I am going fishing” and the others go with him.  They are fishing at night, from a boat, but they do not catch a single fish.

The narrator informs us of the time of day, which, as we have seen before, is likely significant: 

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach, but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus.  (verse 21:4)

This is similar to the other resurrection appearances - Jesus shows up, but the disciples do not recognize him immediately.  Jesus speaks first, asking them if they have caught any fish, and they say, nope.  He suggests that they cast their fishing net to the right side of the boat.  They do so, and their net is so full of fish they can hardly haul it in.   

At this moment, TDWJL recognizes Jesus and exclaims to Peter, “It is the Lord!”  The text says:

When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he had taken it off, and jumped into the sea.  (verse 21:7)

It seems Pete is shocked and embarrassed. Because he is naked?  Because he doubts the resurrection?  We don’t know.  The other disciples drag the heavy net into the boat.

They all go ashore and find a charcoal fire there.  There is fish cooking, and some bread.  Jesus asks them to bring some of the fish they have just caught.  The text specifies that the net is full of large fish, 153 of them.  Another piece of miracle is that despite the huge haul, the net is not torn.

Jesus says “Come and have breakfast.”  A wonderful and simple invitation.  By this point, all the disciples recognize that it is the Lord.  Jesus gives them bread and fish.  The author notes that this is Jesus’ third resurrection appearance to the disciples.  Jesus’ appearance to Mary Magdalene doesn’t count, because she ain’t no disciple.  Or so the gospel author and centuries of tradition would have us think.

What do I love about this story?  I love it because it was one of my Mom’s favorite Bible scenes.  I love it because it’s breakfast, and cooked by Jesus.  I love it because Jesus is so down to earth and friendly.  He is quite unlike what we have seen in some of the earlier chapters of this gospel. I love it because it has a miracle involving fish.  I love it because Peter is impetuous, as always.  And I love that it is so specific about the number of fish caught.

Next we have the famous passage where Jesus offers Peter redemption from Peter’s three denials of Jesus on the night of his arrest.  Three times, Jesus asks Peter “Do you love me?”  This time, Peter is able to reply in the affirmative, three times.  Jesus has some instructions to go along with the redemption, and a dire prediction.  It’s worth sharing the whole dialogue:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” 

He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” 

Jesus said to him, “Feed my lambs.” A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” 

He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” 

Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” 

Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” And he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” 

Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.) After this he said to him, “Follow me.”

(verses 15-19)

And so we have circled back to the start of the gospel.  In 1:39, Jesus issues the simple invitation to the first disciples - “Come and see,” just as simple as “Come and have breakfast.”  In 1:42 Jesus says to Peter “You are Simon son of John.  You are to be called Cephas (Peter)”.  And here in Chapter 21 Jesus calls Peter “Simon son of John” just as he did at the start.  And in 1:43, Jesus says to another new disciple, “Follow me.”

It’s now the dawn of a new day.  We have an immense catch of fish.  We enjoy a hearty meal with close friends, sitting by the sea.  We have a renewed sense of purpose.  Given the particular week in which I am writing this, I find re-reading this story immensely comforting.  Jesus’ language is all about invitation and companionship and love; he does not use force or oppression.  “Come and have breakfast.” 

Although the story has circled back to the beginning, Jesus does not seek to return to how things were.  Jesus wants to move forward with love.

At the same time, Jesus’ words are perplexing.  Jesus reaches back to one of the major metaphors of the gospel – the sheep and the Good Shepherd – and assigns to Peter, and by implication us, the task of caring for his “sheep”.  There’s very little explanation on how to do that.  Would that we could live up to what Jesus is asking us to do!  Perhaps it’s good that Jesus didn’t spell it out to specifically, because how we tend the “sheep” now has to be different than what was needed in 1st century Palestine. Or in 17th century England, a time that at least one US Supreme Court Justice, curiously, feels is relevant to our jurisprudence.  Or in 21st century United States.

From Jesus’ prediction, Peter knows that it will not be all sweetness and light to be tending Jesus’ sheep.  

The next paragraph focuses on The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved and implies a kind of rivalry between Peter and TDWJL.  TDWJL had been following Jesus and Peter during their close conversation.  Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”  (verse 22).  Jesus replies “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?  Follow me!”  The implication is that TDWJL will not die, but then the narrator denies that is the meaning of what Jesus said.  Jesus is basically saying, never mind about the other disciple, you just keep your eyes on me and follow me.  

This week, powerful people in this country showed just how much they want to impose draconian abortion restrictions on all women, no matter the woman’s circumstances. I will interpret this passage about Peter and TDWJL (John 21:21-23) as showing us that Jesus does not make the same rules apply to everyone.  He is able to take into account the particulars of both Peter and John’s situation.  Jesus knows each person’s situation is unique.  Justice Alito, the rest of McConnell’s Handmaidens on the Supreme Court, and on down the line to state legislators - they have no qualms about applying the steepest penalty across the board regardless of the circumstances surrounding a pregnancy (but zero penalty for the man causing an unintended pregnancy! and zero intention to provide healthcare coverage for those involved!).

But I believe Jesus is able to see the need of the woman who has a miscarriage that looks just like an abortion attempt.  I believe Jesus is able to see the need of the woman in the 3rd trimester of pregnancy, very much intended, but who finds out something has gone wrong and her health is threatened.  I believe Jesus is able to see the need of the woman who already has three children, has an unintended pregnancy, and just lost her job and her health insurance, and can’t see how she will support another child.  I believe Jesus is able to see the need of the woman with an unintended pregnancy because a man raped and impregnated her.  The Jesus I worship will not oppress these women the way Justice Alito would.  And yes, forcing any of these women to give birth against their will is oppression.

Theodicy would address why these women end up in these horrible circumstances in the first place, but I'm not going there. There is no good answer to that question. In Jesus' prediction about Peter's fate, Jesus is acknowledging that horrible things happen.

In the final paragraph of the gospel the narrator reveals that he himself is The Disciple Whom Jesus Loved:

This is the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true. But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.  (verses 24-25)

Thus ends this reading of the Gospel of John.  Thanks be to God.  It was not an easy read, but I feel I have gained blessing from the reading of it.