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March 2013

Finishing up Fahrenheit 451.

I finished my re-read of Fahrenheit 451 this week, and I must say I found it just as interesting as I did when I first read it in junior high school. I hope to be able to read it again in a couple of decades or so and see how it hits me then.

In the meantime, I was blown away (no pun intended) by the following paragraph, in which Bradbury describes the (nuclear? maybe) bombing of a city:

"The concussion knocked the air across and down the river, turning the men over like dominos in a line, blew the water in lifting sprays, and blew the dust and made the trees above them mourn with a great wind passing away south. Montag crushed himself down, squeezing himself small, eyes tight. He blinked once. And in that instant, saw the city, instead of the bombs, in the air. They had displaced each other. For another of those impossible instants, the city stood, rebuilt and unrecognizable, taller than it had ever hoped or strived to be, taller than man had built it, erected at last in grouts of shattered concrete and sparkles of torn metal into a mural hung like a reversed avalanche, a million colors, a million oddities, a door where a window should be, a top for a bottom, a side for a back, and then the city rolled over and fell down dead." (p. 160.)

Can't you just SEE that? For my money Bradbury's the most vivid descriptive writer out there. I also enjoyed the interview questions with Bradbury that were included in the 50th anniversary edition paperback that I read--made me want to revisit Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews. For a guy who seemed to write a lot about the dark sides of human nature he sure did love life. It makes you think.

Ahhhh...that's what I've been missing.

David Foster Wallace, I miss you so.

Of course, I realize it is silly to say that about someone I didn't know at all. And even sillier considering I've never been able to make it through a work of his fiction (not even one of his short stories), which is what he's really known for. But I do think when the world lost Wallace it lost a fantastic essayist. And there just aren't enough of those around; when they go, you miss them.

Both Flesh and Not: Essays
by David Foster Wallace

As you know, I've been going through a bit of a reading hiccup. At the same time I picked up The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry from my library's "Serendipity Collection," I also got the title Both Flesh and Not: Essays, by Wallace, from the same collection. It took me a while to get started in it, but the first night I picked it up, the first essay in it that I read was (of course, because I am quite the boring linear-type person) the first essay, "Federer Both Flesh and Not." It's an article on the tennis player Roger Federer, and although I like Federer, I couldn't say I'm a huge fan.* But, there it was, and I was aware that Wallace was a skilled tennis player himself, so I was interested to hear his take on the subject.

I was not disappointed. In the essay I found this:

"Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.

The human beauty we're talking about here is beauty of a particular type; it might be called kinetic beauty. Its power and appeal are universal. It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to do with, really, is human beings' reconciliation with the fact of having a body."*

*There's a great deal that's bad about having a body. If this is not so obviously true that no one needs examples, we can just quickly mention pain, sores, odors, nausea, aging, gravity, sepsis, clumsiness, illness, limits--every last schism between our physical wills and our actual capacities. Can anyone doubt we need help being reconciled? Crave it? It's your body that dies, after all.

There are wonderful things about having a body, too, obviously--it's just that these things are much harder to feel and appreciate in real time. Rather like certain kinds of rare peak-type sensuous epiphanies (I'm so glad I have eyes to see this sunrise!, etc.), great athletes seem to catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive, move through space, interact with matter. Granted, what great athletes can do with their bodies are things that the rest of us can only dream of. But these dreams are important--they make up for a lot." (p. 8.)

Sorry to quote at such length. But what I love here is how perfectly, how awesomely, really, Wallace captures a thought I have had so often; namely, the kinetic beauty of the body. I don't even have to watch sporting events or athletes to have this feeling--once, closing the library, I was working with a library page who was a six-foot tall, young guy. Part of closing was to make sure all the chairs were around the right tables, which was something of a pain because my library had these clunky, wooden, HEAVY chairs that I literally had to drag from place to place (slowly). So walking around I observed Scott, my co-worker, find one of these chairs way out of place, easily pick it up and carry it, literally, above his head (for fun?) until he found an empty spot at a table to gently set it down in. I'll never forget that. I stood there with my mouth open and wished, for just a moment, I could be a twenty-year-old, buff guy just so I could see what that FELT like.

But I digress.

When I read that quote, really, I heaved a sigh and something in my reading soul unclenched. It was temporary, but it felt so good. THAT is what I have been missing; I've been reading some good things, but nothing that has made me say, "yes, I know exactly what you mean!" And I think that communion, more than anything, is what I seek in reading.

This is too long already. More on the rest of this essay collection later.

*I'll admit it, my head is always turned by Rafael Nadal, who is just so, so pretty.

A disturbing juxtaposition.

This may be a bit heavy for a Monday, but if you're looking for some disturbing reading to put together (and therefore make it even more disturbing), you might try Ray Bradbury's classic novel Fahrenheit 451 and this latest article from Matt Taibbi.*

For whatever reason I decided last week it was time to re-read Fahrenheit 451, as I think I first (and last) read it in seventh or eighth grade. I'm not all the way through, but it's been interesting. I wish I'd kept a journal way back when, recording what I thought about this book, because I always remembered liking it and being struck by it, but I can't for the life of me remember WHY. And I suspect it has been a very different reading experience this time around, reading it as an adult.

This was one of the many parts that struck me, from the book:

"The bombers crossed the sky and crossed the sky over the house, gasping, murmuring, whistling like an immense, invisible fan, circling in emptiness. 'Jesus God,' said Montag, 'Every hour so many damn things in the sky! How in hell did those bombers get up there every single second of our lives! Why doesn't someone want to talk about it?'"

And from the article:

"The idea that we have to beg and plead and pull Capra-esque stunts in the Senate just to find out whether or not our government has "asserted the legal authority" (this preposterous phrase is beginning to leak into news coverage with alarming regularity) to kill U.S. citizens on U.S. soil [using drones] without trial would be laughable, were it not for the obvious fact that such lines are in danger of really being crossed, if they haven't been crossed already."

In both: the theme of "not wanting to know" is a disturbing one. And yet, I know why we don't want to look and don't want to know. We're tired and we've got to go to work and get the kids fed and I think the brakes are going on the car and Christ, how am I going to pay that $5000 medical bill that wasn't covered? I get it. But I salute both Bradbury and Taibbi for asking: what will it take to make us LOOK?

*Stick with the article. It's long but worth it.

A tragic shipwreck.

So you've all heard the song The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald, right?

Well, of course, I had too. And I'd always been, somewhere in the back of my mind, intrigued by the story of the ship's sinking in Lake Superior. But here's the embarrassing thing--I'd always had in mind it was something that happened in the 1920s or 1930s.

Did you know that the huge iron ore carrier sank in November, 1975?

You're right, I really should have known that myself. And it's one of many reasons I'm glad that I saw Michael Schumacher's book Mighty Fitz: The Sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald listed as one of the new nonfiction books in my library's catalog, and brought it home.

It's a succinct little history, telling the story of the Edmund Fitzgerald's last tragic voyage on stormy seas, as well as a bit about the ensuing investigations of the wreck. It's only 187 pages long (although appendixes include a list of the names of the 29 men who died aboard, notes, a comprehensive bibliography, and an index. It was just what I wanted; a quickly paced account that covered the basics but never got too technical*, although I might have liked to see a bit more information on the sailors who died and their families. The most interesting thing about the story is how it is resolved--or not--you'll just have to read the book to see what I mean.

*I'd actually love to see William Langewiesche take a whack at this subject, or maybe Great Lakes shipwrecks in general. I know he doesn't write history, really, but he does a great job of making the technical interesting, I always think.

A try at fiction.

A friend recently suggested to me that I shake up my reading habits a bit by changing genres, so I thought I'd try a novel over the weekend.

I found Rachel Joyce's The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry in my local library's "Serendipity Collection"--a collection of popular books that exists outside of the library's regular holdings, and books in which can be checked out for two weeks. This is a way to circumvent the waiting list for a number of popular books, to reward patrons on a "first come, first serve" basis. It's not a bad idea, but normally I never have to go near it, because I don't usually have any problems finding anything to read. However, in the last few weeks, I never seem to be in the mood for any of the books I have coming in on my hold list. So there I was, looking at my Serendipity options. And this novel is the one I came home with.

It's the story of one Harold Fry, husband of Maureen, former brewery accountant, and now retired and largely going-through-the-motions gentleman. Then a letter arrives from a long-ago friend, Queenie Hennessy: in which she informs him she is dying of cancer. He can't think of much else to do, so he pens a very proper British condolence note, and sets off to mail it.

Somewhere along the way to the mailbox he decides, instead, that if he walks nearly the length of England (he's in the south of England; Queenie is in the north), Queenie will just have to keep living until he gets there. So he just keeps walking.

Of course there's a lot of foreshadowing and revelations along the way: what has been going wrong in Harold's marriage; he and his wife's relationship with their son; the favor Queenie did for Harold and for which he was never able to thank her.

I enjoyed it (and of course I enjoyed the British setting), but I warn you: it's a weeper. Towards the end I went through a few tissues--but that might also just be the mood I'm in.* I don't know that I loved it, but I did want to keep reading it until I was done, and that's saying something these days.

*Or the mood we're all in, in the never-ending winter wonderland that is Wisconsin. I'm feeling simultaneously edgy and weepy these days; must be the lack of sunlight or above-freezing temperatures.

Roll me up and smoke me when I die.

You know, Willie Nelson is just a fun person with whom to spend some time.

And that's exactly what you feel like you're doing when you read Nelson's autobiographical collection Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die: Musings from the Road. The book is truly that--musings--but meatier than you might realize at first. It includes excerpts from Nelson's writings while on the road, interspersed with commentary from family and band members, and friends. Subjects range from Farm Aid to guns to writing music to jokes (of which there are very many good ones here, although some are a bit raunchier than others). I'd quote one here but I think it's more fun to read them in Willie's book.

One of my favorite things to learn about Willie came from his son Micah (whose illustrations are also featured throughout the book): "there has never been any pressure from him to be anything but a decent person" (p. 75.) That seemed about right, and I hope it is something CRjr might be able to say about me some day.

If you enjoy Nelson's music, I think you'll enjoy this book too. (I think you might even enjoy it if you're not a fan of his music--he's just that likable.) Although I guess I would not suggest it to people who are not fans of casual marijuana use. It's also a particularly nice laid-back little read if you are GOING CRAZY FROM CABIN FEVER, which I would guess just about everyone in Wisconsin (and perhaps in other parts? are you having an early or late spring where you are?) is by now.

Nonfiction educates us, whether we want it to or not.

So I read Florence Williams's really fascinating book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History almost entirely in the bathroom, and skipped around quite a bit among chapters, but I still enjoyed it. What I MOST enjoyed, however, was that Mr. CR evidently spent some time in the bathroom reading it as well. This is how his experiences with the book progressed:

The first day he came out of the bathroom and said, "Wow, breasts are really interesting."*

The second day he came out of the bathroom and said, "Thinking about what's all floating around in the environment, that's pretty weird."

The third day he came out of the bathroom and said, "I can't read that Breasts book anymore." And I think he really did stop reading it.

So what was the breaking point for Mr. CR? I think it was reading about all the chemicals and toxins in our environment, and how our bodies (womens' breasts, in particular) suck up and synthesize and deal with all those said toxins. But this book was about much more than just that.

I'd probably classify this book as popular science with a good dose of sociology thrown in: Williams discusses the anthropological and cultural history of our breasts, and also talks to a lot of scientists and researchers about their various studies, from the more sociological (male preferences for breast sizes) to the more genetic (including undertaking the chemical analysis of her own breast milk). I think that's the chapter where Mr. CR started to lose it, because you start to find information like this, on why flame retardants show up in everyone's breast milk:

"As one industry website proclaimed, 'Today, polyurethanes can be found in virtually everything we touch--our desks, chairs, cars, clothes, footwear, appliances, beds, the insulation in our walls, roof and molding on our homes.'

There's just one problem: it's highly flammable, earning nicknames like liquid gas and fatal foam. A typical home filled with polyurethane products can literally burst into flames in five minutes once the petrochemical gasses heat up enough. Much household and office foam is treated with flame-retardans designed to delay ignition. The substances, which include bromine, chlorine, and phosphorus versions, came into widespread use after 1975..." (p. 202.)

And that sort of information, coupled with the science of how breast tissue, more so than other body tissues, sucks up environmental ingredients and interacts with them, is what starts to freak a reader out.

Depressing subject matter notwithstanding, I really enjoyed this one.** I like a good science read that isn't completely dumbed down but which is still within my understanding, and Williams has a nice writing style. She reminds me a bit of Mary Roach, but I like her better--Roach seems (to me, anyway) to be becoming increasingly cutesy in her science writing.

So do give this one a try. If nothing else you'll probably be amused by the photos on the front and back covers. Very clever.

*This still makes me giggle. You think it's interesting reading about them, guys? Try walking around with the complex buggers.

*I know The Lesbrarian swears by Stacked, and I mean to read that one too, but I think I enjoyed the heavier emphasis on science topics that this book offered.


I am unsettled. Unsettled, unsettled.

Yes, I think it deserves repeating at least twice. Although my usual two moods are antsy and testy (thanks to the great 1992 Noah Baumbach movie Kicking and Screaming for that line), lately "unsettled" hits nearer to the mark. And why am I so unsettled?

I'm bored with reading.

Of course everyone goes through slumps, and I am familiar with that phenomenon. But this is something bigger. For one thing, it's been going on for months. For another, I have periodically been reading things I very much enjoy, and I've got any number of books going (although the collected nonfiction of Joan Didion, regardless of how I love her, only serves to increase the unsettled feeling--more on this later). But overall? Some of the fizz definitely seems to gone from my reading life.

So: help me out. Reading suggestions? Conquer cabin fever* suggestions? Anybody else feeling this way? (I know at least one other person is, and they have my sympathy.)

*I'm sure this has something to do with it. It's mid-March, for the love of Pete, and we can't get out of the flurries/32-degree mark weather pattern.

Jonesing for more Downton Abbey?

Well, I said I wasn't going to do it, I didn't watch much of the first two seasons, but I did get sucked into the third (and most recent season) of Downton Abbey on PBS. I think maybe it was because I read about the huge (do I still have to say this? SPOILER WARNING for following link) season-ending spoiler before the episodes even started playing here, and I thought, hell, now I might as well see how it gets there.*

I feel a bit dirty now that I've watched it and I still say that 1. Lady Mary  is the most boring, annoying female character in the history of BBC productions, and 2. She and Matthew Crawley are the least sparky couple I've ever seen. But let's face it, I'm a sucker for all things British, and particularly all things Edwardian. And not so much the upstairs Edwardians, but rather the servants. I cannot believe how house servants got worked all day long, for such little pay. Perhaps, on a very small scale, it is my farm upbringing that makes me sympathize with people who probably desired very little else but to have a moment here and there to sit down.

I do have a nonfiction point here. In one of my trolls through the "New at the Library" nonfiction lists, I found Alison Maloney's title Life Below Stairs: True Lives of Edwardian Servants, and a few weeks ago blew through it in the course of about two days. It's quite slight and I'm not sure it's worth its $23.99 cover price, but It still was an informative, entertaining read. The author explores several aspects of servants lives, including the backgrounds from which they came, their hierarchies within a household, typical days and tasks, pay and conditions, hiring and firing, and many more. The text includes many citations from primary sources, which really give a feel for the period:

"Most servants were given just one afternoon off a week, on Sunday, so that they could attend church. In addition, if the mistress was a benevolent one, they might have had an extra day off a month.

Cassell's Household Guide suggested the generous extra day did away with the necessity for a maid's friends to call on her at the house. 'At the same time, a mistress should be careful not to bind herself to spare her servant on a certain day in every month, as is sometimes demanded,' it advised." (p. 84.)

Goddamn servants. Always demanding the same one day off per month. You can see how the upstairs ladies of these houses just had their hands full.

Overall: a good book. And it might just help tide you over a bit until Season 4.

*Also because Sesame Street did a lovely Upside Downton parody. Good old Sesame Street.

A word about nonfiction.

Ever feel annoyed that "nonfiction" is the best word we have for describing everything that isn't, well, fiction? You might want to check out RickLibrarian's very thoughtful article "Proposing the End of Nonfiction as a Label and Organizing Default." It's way more interesting than the title makes it sound, I promise you.

Personally, I've never been all that bothered by "nonfiction" as a label, but I am terrible at organizing stuff.* I don't hate "nonfiction" the way I hate "creative nonfiction," for instance, or even worse, "narrative nonfiction" (which has always implied to me that NF must have a linear narrative story to be a good recreational read). But Rick raises some really interesting points. Let me know in the comments (or in his) what you think on the subject!

In other nonfiction news, the National Book Critics Circle Awards were announced last week, and Swimming Studies (reviewed below) won for Best Autobiography.

*Except for the texts of the books I've indexed. Forcing a book's main concepts into a back-of-the-book index is the only way I've ever successfully imposed my will on anything, which may be why I still enjoy indexing. If I had to title my own (boring) life story I think I'd call it "Confessions of a Largely Failed Control Freak."

Imperfect in so many ways.

The slim book The Imperfect Mom: Candid Confessions of Mothers Living in the Real World has been sitting on my table for at least a month now, which indicates, I think, a lot about the imperfections going on in the house of this mom. Procrastination? Check. Poor cleaning routines? Check. (I promise you this book hasn't been moved or touched, even to dust around, in at least four weeks.) Poor time management and lack of regular blogging? Check.

I don't see that big picture turning around any time soon, but it is time to get this book out of here. I got it from the library, of course, because of the title, and it turned out to be a collection of mostly engaging essays on the practice of imperfect mothering (which I am perfecting over here). I see it's got a bunch of bookmarks in it--let's see what I thought was interesting enough, at least a month ago, to bookmark, shall we?

The entire chapter by Jenny Rosenstrach, titled "Take Back Your Stereo," about the inanity of "children's music," and how to get around it: "We'd listen to our music with two sets of ears asking ourselves, 'Would this make a good Phoebe song?' It was amazing to discover and in some cases rediscover the songs that did. Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits had probably been in the CD case for ten years without airtime when Andy decided to play track 14 in the car. It was love at first listen. For three months straight we'd barely be out of the driveway before the rapid-fire questioning would begin:

'Cecelia, Daddy?'" (p. 75.)

I enjoyed that because we just listened to that song the other day and CRjr rocked out. It's a good question: is there anyone who doesn't like the song "Cecelia"?

And this, from the opening essay:

"I should have eliminated caffeine completely from my diet during the first trimester of my pregnancy with Katherine. Maybe that was the cause of her irregular heartbeat. And why did I fly with her when she was a wee two months old? Did I really think her immune system could fight off the nasty bacterial infection she caught on the plane, which almost had her hospitalized?" (p. 4.)

Whenever I hear women saying their pregnancies made them feel stronger, I just marvel at them. Have you seen the list of what pregnant women either flat-out can't eat or "should avoid"? It's ridiculous. Being pregnant made me feel like one huge crisis waiting to happen.

And this, from an essay on a woman's pre-term labor, particularly her reactions to her husband's and doctor's reactions:

[After feeling her water break and trying to rouse her husband] "'Don't pregnant women have bladder issues? Maybe that's what it is,' he said.

'I think I would know if I had only wet my pants,' I growled, my irritation increasing exponentially.

'Yeah, but I remember reading something about...'

He noticed my hands moving to wrap around his neck.

'I'll get ready to go."

Just then the phone rang. It was my doctor. As I was explaining what happened, he interrupted me and asked to remind him how far along I was.

'Thirty-two weeks.'

'Are you sure?'

Oh, gee, now that you ask, ha, ha, silly me, I thought it was December, not February--of course I'm sure, are you kidding me?

'Yes, I'm sure,' I said with great restraint." (p. 24.)

I really got a kick out of that, because CRjr was a high-risk pregnancy, and trust me, you are not only counting weeks, you are counting days. Days to being closer to being full-term, days to being closer to bringing that baby in "safe." And how many mothers HAVEN'T had these conversations with doctors? Honestly, doctors. I know they care and try and we need them and all that jazz, but it feels like I have had to stop myself from saying, "Look, asshole," in more of my conversations than not with doctors.

So: I found a lot to relate to in this one, and I enjoyed it. I liked the variety of viewpoints, and it was refreshing to hear other mothers tell stories about how they had muffed things (and yet everything turned out fine, or at least workable). I always think this is the sort of gift, along with perhaps The Three-Martini Playdate: A Practical Guide to Happy Parenting, that someone should get for mothers-to-be at baby showers, just for a change of pace.

Where will the next big epidemic come from?

Would you believe I spent the past week blowing through a book on diseases (primarily caused by viruses) that cross over from animals to humans?*

Well, I did, and it was a fantastic read. The book in question was David Quammen's Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic, it's 520 pages long, and yes, it's about disease and human pandemics, and I could not put it down.

This came as somewhat of a surprise, since I've looked at some of Quammen's other science/natural history books, and found them somewhat dull. So either this is just a subject that I find interesting (and I do), or he took his style up a notch in this one, or I didn't give his earlier books a fair trial. All possibilities.

To be specific, Quammen reports on "zoonoses"--diseases that are communicable from animals to humans (thanks, Merriam-Webster's). Here's some introductory information from Quammen:

"Ebola is a zoonosis. So is bubonic plague. So was the so-called Spanish influenza of 1918-1919, which had its ultimate source in a wild aquatic bird and, after passing through some combination of domesticated animals (a duck in southern China, a sow in Iowa?) emerged to kill as many as 50 million people before receding into obscurity. All of the human influenzas are zoonoses. So are monkeypox, bovine tuberculosis, Lyme disease, West Nile fever, Marburg virus disease, rabies, hantavirus pulmonary syndrome, anthrax, Lassa fever..." (p. 21).

So yes, a real upper subject. But Quammen makes it very compelling, tracing the emergence, outbreaks, study and history, and other aspects of a variety of zoonoses, from Hendra to Ebola to influenza to HIV. It's quick-paced, particularly for science writing, and there's a ton of fascinating things to learn here. Did you know, for instance, that HIV might have "spilled over" from animal to human hosts as early as 1908? I didn't.

It's a really fascinating book. I wouldn't read it right before you get on an airplane, or if you live near a lot of bats. Otherwise, do have at.

*Although, check out that freaky cover. Mr. CR is reading it now, and I've had to request that he put it down facedown, because the cover freaks me out.