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For Book Butterflies More Sheen
By: Esther M. Powell
Posted on: Sun, April 01 2012 - 10:43 am

April 19, 2013

Prompted by a conversation in which the word "innocence" was mentioned, my sister placed into my hands a book about Norman Rockwell.

Norman Rockwell: The Underside of Innocence, it is called. 

Now I admit I don't usually read art criticism.  Seems to me I read a book (or large part thereof) years ago by Bernard Berenson, but the wordful discussions of fine visual art are not my daily skinnydip.

It did evoke my curiosity a little, because I chanced upon a life of Norman Rockwell written with the aid of his son at the public library in Valparaiso (I now realize published with popular appeal in mind - it being a larger but skinnier book than your average biography) and read it.  I found it very interesting, mostly because of his descriptions of his work and the cautionary tales about the effect of the business on some of his colleagues.

Norman Rockwell was an artist who came to my attention (or lack of it) every week for the period of time my parents subscribed to the Saturday Evening Post.  I'm sure I enjoyed the covers occasionally, and I'm sure I got a feel for his style the way you get a feel for the rhythm of the hymns you sing in church every Sunday or the Mexican music wafting on the breezes near the cantinas on weekends.

In other words, regular exposure taught me to recognize Norman Rockwell.  The way he signed his work was sure to teach you his name.  It is reminiscent of the stencil lettering used in schools.

It was only later in my life that Norman Rockwell's work became any kind of issue for me.  When I heard people deride his work with scorn, I was taken aback.  I did not recognize the artist as these people seemed to be describing him.

Richard Halpern, the author of this very psychologically analytical work about Rockwell, describes most people as strongly pro- or con- Rockwell's style.  Then Halpern mentions a third group of people, more timid he speculates, that recognize more complexity in his work, are enthusiastic about it and search it out.

I have never been in any of these categories.  I could usually recognize Rockwells work, but never got to love it.  Maybe it was the "revealing" details of the sort Halpern mentions that made me pause.  Maybe my innocence was threatened by what I saw, and my intellect challenged by it, in such a way that at that very moment, when enjoyment is halted by... something disturbing... I just averted my eyes and went on my way.

Well.  I was of the age of the girl in the painting pictured on the cover of the book jacket when I first was exposed to Rockwell, or should I say when he exposed himself (myself?) to me!  (I do mean that the way it sounds, if Halpern is to be believed.)

But what is Richard Halpern really trying to say, here?

Is Rockwell very very conscious or is he not?  I'm convinced by this book that if he was very very conscious and in the way Halpern describes, that he might have been very very naughty indeed.  (I can only say it in such a frivolous way, I guess, because I don't believe Rockwell behaved badly. (Denial?  We never want to believe people have behaved badly unless we dislike them intensely.))

Perhaps, however, Rockwell was very highly sophisticated and therefore more than a little irresponsible in his work.

I get the feeling Halpern is playing the same game he says Rockwell played, and I am inclined to have the same personal reaction.

This work really arouses in me the same feeling as M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie.

Are we really responsible for our unconsciousness?  Isn't that the whole point - that there will always be motivations and responses within ourselves that elude our abilities to perceive them?  It is a bottomless well!

If we are held responsible for what we do not know, what is the standard?  In the law, the wording is usually "a reasonable man" (maybe that has changed to "person".)

By that argument, most of society has the say over what is reasonable.  If most of society likes Rockwell and takes him at face value (which is one of the things his detractors accuse him of - facility) then that is the dernier cri.

Some of the arguments in Peck's People of the Lie are right on.  Other times he just goes too far.  I feel the same way about Halpern's book, except that maybe in his case he has stepped back from the cliff edge.

Maybe.  But he is standing right next to the drop and my fingers itch to push him over!

If Rockwell was so full of knowledge as Halpern says, his apparent transparency (ha!) is a lie.

If so, no wonder people don't think he is a good artist.

Me, I always, as a girl, felt a stronger affinity for Renoir and Rouault.

April 12, 2013

In the middle of my escape reading I managed to tuck in one nonfiction work, Bird Sense by Tim Birkhead, which is about how birds experience the world.

It is a very entertaining work which chronicles the perceptions of humans about how birds perceive.

Part of the entertainment arises from the misconceptions humans have held about birds that seem just dumb.  How could people think that birds don't smell?  But yet, except for some individual observers over the centuries, that was accepted science for a long time.

Audubon was one who got a thing or two wrong.  Read this book if only for the vulture sense of smell experiments.  We humans despise vultures for being scavengers, but guess what?  We are more like vultures than you might think.

How ducks manage to distinguish food from inedible stuff in their pond soup without being able to see what they are doing is explained, as is the lousy vision of kiwis.  Birkhead does not  by any means limit himself to the American continent, obviously.

If there are any bird-lovers out there who want to further our knowledge of their favorite bird family, there is A TON of research still waiting to happen.  Throughout the book Birkhead points the way to possible research topics for the student of the winged creatures.

In the escape fiction category I have lately read Elizabeth Peter's The Camelot Caper and Ngaio Marsh's A Man Lay Dying.

These I rate too silly and too, too silly or maybe vice versa, but hey this is a silly month.  My sister sent me these (and more) obviously having decided to put aside childish things.  I am dribbling them into the library return box as I read them, and do not yet know how far my April folly will allow me to go with the comical things.  They are almost worth reading for the outlandishness of them!  I'm sure these authors got a good chuckle out of them, and so can we.  But only if you don't demand your humor and your mysteries hard.

March 26, 2013

The Stone Diaries is a fast read.  Or should I say, absorbing enough to have made me want to keep returning to it.

I couldn't believe in it the way I read novelists like George Elliot and Thomas Hardy when I was a girl, but is this because Carol Shields does not really grab the tone of the times she is writing about, or because I am a more knowledgeable, critical reader than I used to be?

The idea of calling a fortune of $10,000 (a huge fortune back in the day, I'm sure equivalent to $100,000 now) "pin money" offends me profoundly.  Is this novelist's character talking about those little cards of pointy things we use to sew (and still probably only cost a dollar or two) or brooches from Tiffany's, for God's sake?

Is this novel based on a real woman's life but just hugely messed with and embroidered, with entirely unrelated photographs included for verisimilitude?  If so, the photo of Mercy and Cuyler is wildly inappropriate.  If the novel is loosely based on Mercy's life, the fantastic rhapsodies about her corpulence are outrageous.  Alive, Mercy could sue the author for libel.

I've read and written about at least one other novel that raised these issues in me.  I have read other novels based on real events (some of Thomas Hardy's among them) and they haven't offended me so.

Is it because in the past there was some privacy and dignity allowed the characters whose lives have been exploited so? Is my response based on the fact that, if these people are real, they have been bruited about ruthlessly?

Or is my problem that I feel myself jerked around to a degree that I almost never feel if the fiction is "real?" (Ha, the fiction not the action!)

At any rate, I cannot joyfully enter into the world Shields has created.  It is too much like an entymology class - too joyless itself - to affirm or even destroy - the idea that life is worth living.

P.S.  3/29  Shields is right about the word "feisty" though - it is - oops - don't want to ruin it for you! 

March 21, 2013 

I finished my get-through-the-last-of-the-winter escape reading.  Yay!  It is Spring!

I have been craving Jane Haddam lately so I read Blood in the Water, even though I wasn't sure I hadn't read it before. 

It filled the bill for escape literature and is great fun, if you can call preoccupation with dark passions and murder fun.  Evidently millions of us do.  Whether we do it to learn (forewarned is forearmed) or as a cautionary tale on how to be less murderworthy or just for a puzzle to solve (or to enjoy being too lazy to solve) is not the subject of this blather.

Jane Haddam is good reading.  I'm beginning to appreciate her more and more even if, I admit, it is more like hankering for a great piece of cake than for a tender steak.  This author offers us a buffet of neighborhoods, personalities, and local color (sometimes off-color!) that makes her great fun.  Demarkian is eccentric.  But then, all great literary detectives must be, if they aren't obsessed with food!  Otherwise what would keep us occupied?  Gregor is also a little obsessed with food, though.  Just enough, with his unusual approach to life, to keep us interested.

With False Profits I yielded to the attraction of a punny title, and regretted it.  It was my least favorite of these three.  Why Patricia Smiley's characters never become more than cardboard cutouts for me, I don't know, but there it is.  Her attempts at engaging detail don't interest me (they seem strained) and the quirks she gives her characters to make them more human just make them seem silly. 

Robert Parker is always reliable entertainment.   His lead characters are obsessed with their dogs, and Perish Twice, a Sunny Randall book, is, like most of Parker's mysteries, worth a session or two with a therapist.

In other words, well worth the price of purchase.

Of course, I don't puchase books often being of the library persuasion (as is my wallet.)  But I had gone to shrinks before I was introduced to Parker, and he teaches a lot of worthwhile lessons, for those receptive to hearing them.  Worth the price of purchase, when compared with even a sliding scale consultation.

That's not fair, though, and I know it.  The individual attention and occasional uncomfortable question you get from a real therapist makes you confront yourself in a way that literature cannot.

Parker's feminism may be spotty and a little rabid, but in a male author that is refreshing.

At least in basic attitude toward life, Sunny tries to live up to her name with a basic optimism, but even if these novels were cozies (which I'm not willing to accede) they are as much challenge as comfort.

Except maybe to dog owners.  Women might not be indulged here, but dogs are.  Good thing dogs can't read.


March 8, 2013

I love Mark Forsyth.  Not only has he turned what he considers (or at least pretends his family considers) a social failing into a book, but it is a very fun book.

Etymologicon is subtitled A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language and not only is it fun, it is the kind of fun you can enjoy while not watching the ads that interrupt your favorite (or most important) TV viewing.

It is perfect from which to read snippets to your mate who never listens to the ads either, while he is trying to catch up with Facebook or his emails.

(Well, I said I loved the book.  I never promised that your partner would!)

A lot of the information in this book would have made learning in grade and high school a whole lot easier and more meaningful.  That means something from someone who, as I have, took three years of Latin in high school.  Latin helps enormously with understanding some of the etymological roots of English, and this humorous book is just what the doctor would order to help you get through the last two and a half weeks of winter (reading during ads only - you don't want to just rush through it!)

Uh-oh.  I just made it sound too scholarly.  I mean, of course the title makes it sound scholarly too, I'll admit.  Maybe it even is scholarly.  It's just that Mark Forsyth is more like a roller coaster ride except, thank heavens, gentler, than an encyclopedia.

Don't skip the tests at the end.  Don't take them unless you have studied at least half a dozen languages (I did and if I had thought they had been possible to pass by your ordinary college graduate I would have been crushed).  But then I'm not good at the New York Times Crossword, either.  Whats-his-name would never come over and sit next to me on the commuter train.

You might ace those tests!  They are fun even if you don't - perhaps unlike any test you have ever taken before, and who isn't always on the lookout for another kind of fun test to take?

Gee, somehow I am afraid I'm just not saying the right kind of stuff to make you pick up Etymologicon.

But then, with a title like that, if you don't like words you probably wouldn't have picked it up anyway.

P.S.  I just looked up Mark Forsyth's blog and he has written another book, maybe before this one.  Gotta check it out.  Still too much winter here!

February 19, 2013

I read Beach Music by Pat Conroy in the nineties and over the last two decades forgot it all, I think via repression.

The one little detail I thought I remembered from it was not there.  I'm hoping it was at least from another Conroy book I'd read.

Why would I want to repress the contents of Beach Music? The most obvious reason would be the horrific stories therein, and the horrific characters.  I know they are probably true or truly imitative of life - all the more reason for a person who needs to stay an optimist to forget them.

Still, I'm happy I read it again - for a book club.  Now not only have I reread the book, but discussing it with the club members will definitely help cement it in my mind.  It is a very ambitious book and on the whole it succeeded with me.

I think one reason I had to forget about it was because I had to operate in the world, and I would not really be helped by the idea that there were people around who might really hate me simply because my eyes are blue.  I have enough trouble with my personality, which I can (theoretically) help, without being plagued by concerns about my eye-color, which I refuse to get contacts to obscure.

I think dimly enough about the world without being told about how much worse (much, much worse) it is than I thought.

Other less personal reasons might be that I found the ending(s) unsatisfactory.  Given the weight of the chapters before, the ending seemed like something the author had to go into fairytale land to create.

These characters are not only limited by the past, they are chained to, bound by, and obsessed with it.

The book, in short, is a drag.

A magnificent drag, but evidently one I wanted to put in my past as quickly as possible, and not dwelt upon.

Let's see what I can remember about Beach Music ten years from now.

Oh, it is, of course, in my book required reading!  Maybe twice.

February 4, 2013

Being Santa Claus by Sal Lizard reminds me of the inspirational stories I used to read as a kid (and occasionally as a young adult when my parents misguidedly sent me a subscription to the magazine) except inside of being a shortened version it seems like an expanded one.

I must confess that I did enjoy some of those articles, though, and I'm sure I learned a thing or two.

Maybe my own parents' truth-telling, "Santa Claus is the spirit of Christmas" left me unclinging enough to non-reality to allow me to let go of the idea of a personal God in later years, I don't know.

Whether you think that encouraging kids to believe in a flesh-and-blood Santa is a good thing is up to you.

I can't decide whether Lizard's real name is an aid or not to his impersonation business, but this cagy critter has found good use for it.

It's a quick read and has some good stories - if you can believe them!

February 3, 2013

The bases and techniques of prediction are the subject for Nate Silver's The Signal and the Noise.

Now who could resist a title like that, having tried to hear a voice through static, understand why the CIA didn't expect the 9/11 attacks, solve a complicated mathematical story problem?

This book explicates prediction theory (or philosophy, if you will) and shows us how the theories most popular in the U.S. in recent decades might have led us astray.

This book makes the noise properly intimidating, but reassures us about our human value vis-a-vis those of the computer.

At first I was intimidated by the 25 pages about the game of chess, but it was very pleasant reading after all.

The book itself has a number of unfortunate printing (editing?) errors and as far as I'm concerned the graphics were mostly noise (although I did "guess" the quiz one correctly (my resume to follow!)).  Were those dots supposed to be in different colors?  I mean, I got the point anyway, but only by reading the text!  Didn't need the graphs.  One of them was patently wrongly labelled - can't help but think it was all intentional.

A book well worth reading, and if I were on a beach vacation with just that book, I wouldn't at all mind reading it again!

(Ha, ha, if I were in Australia right now, I would probably fantasize about having to read it again in some ice palace hotel!)

P.S.  Feb. 4   I just heard that Nate Silver wrongly predicted that the 49ers would win the Super Bowl.  Aargh!

One thing he constantly emphasizes in his book, though, is that overconfidence is inappropriate.  His prediction, I am sure, was not couched in any absolute terms!

January 24, 2013

What do American citizens have in common with the populace of Venice?  New Yorkers might feel that it is inundation, but that's not the concern of Chrystia Freeland.

I picked up Plutocrats  (ha, that beginning sounds like the sexy memoir of a jet-setter, doesn't it?) because of an MSNBC interview and I wish I could say that I couldn't put it down.  In truth, the author almost lost me halfway through - but I'm so glad she didn't!

She almost lost me because I encountered one paragraph so meaningless (of course I can't find it now - should have marked it!) due to terms I couldn't really evaluate and assertions that seemed unsupported that I almost threw the whole book aside.

I must have some compulsive thing about beginning what I have begun, or some pride thing about truly having read what I say I have read, because I kept reading, sick as I became of plutocrats and their ways.

For instance, how would you measure wealth?  Freeland's way might surprise you, unless you are a historian.  What is the possible disadvantage of a prep school high school?  How essential is a degree from an ivy-league school?

What is "cognitive capture"?

Does plutocracy bring happiness?

This book is a good one for one of every class to read.  Just plug along until you get to the good stuff.  Continuing education, and all that.  Besides, if you haven't had a scary read lately, this book might be just what you need!

January 15, 2013

Bleeding Kansas is the first non-mystery novel I have picked up by Sara Paretsky (is it her first?) and I zipped through it very happily.

Such a welcome reminder that not every State between Utah and Pennsylvania has the same history!  Kansas and Nebraska and Iowa (and their pasts) may not be as innocuous as they appear.

Bleeding Kansas gives a heads up to people (from hippies to yuppies) who are hankering to go back to the land that such a decision doesn't necessarily lead to a bucolic paradise.  It certainly won't feel like going home.

In a past book club I remember commenting that people might want to leave the farm because they were bored to death.  This book suggests another alternative - they might be scared to death! 

There are certain of Paretsky's situations that I find incredible, but hey, the brush of her satire paints such a vivid wonderful canvas I for one don't care.

The elements she has brought together into this novel brought Jane Haddam to mind to the point that I was wondering if these two were one and the same individual.  (A little bit of weaving of synthesis that shows my true capacity for conspiracey theory - I'd better watch that!)

Haddam, however, seems to have the view that hateful bigoted brutal people are the vast minority.  Paretsky might put that at more like 50%.

January 8, 2013

Picked up An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Maguire for the Madison book club that meets at the library. 

I was depressed by the prospect of reading it but I am glad I did, because it tells the story of five young men who entered the monastery as novices within a year or so of each other.

This is no dry exposition of the monastic life and buildings involved in the Carthusian practices.  It is the real story of real people who really want to dedicate their lives to silence and God.

Who am I to be depressed by such a prospect?  (But the pictures of the ones who got away seem to depict happier people than the remaining... but no, I don't want to ruin it for you!)

The incredible archaic social structure of this monastery has changed somewhat since the decade of these young men's novitiate but still - it seems to be medievalism at its worse.

In some ways, a horror story, but the author obviously thinks otherwise.

Certainly worth reading!

January 7, 2013

Cannot believe I have not written about books for two whole months!  Well, I read one non-fiction book that I can't even remember the name of now.

I'm sure I've read some unsung fiction also.

I haven't written about every piece by Thomas Hardy that I have read on my Kindle.  People say, "Oh isn't Hardy kind of depressing?"  Well, if my life has been depressing then he is depressing.  His unworthy characters are often so bad that it is a downer, but he is an interesting writer, and his good characters are definitely believably flawed!  Dang, that is depressing.  Anyway, I am enjoying Thomas Hardy in the middle of the night when I can't sleep.  Waking in the middle of the night is caused by depression, so maybe Hardy and I deserve each other.

The Warmth of Other Suns is a big fat book lent me by a friend.  It's author, Isabel Wilkerson, has written about three black people who moved to the North from the Deep South.  This book is a fascinating one.  I had never heard of it before but I recommend it highly.  It talks about the Great Migration of the blacks from north to south.  Funny, I never noticed it, but then I didn't notice much.

One of Wilkerson's accomplishments is the quoting of studies that explode the myths about the newcomers to the big cities from the South (that they were less employable and less educated than the blacks already settled in northern cities, among others.)

I did not realize (No, not even after reading The Help!) how enslaved the black population was in the South a century after the civil war, and beyond.

This is certainly a must-read.

November 7, 2012

I didn't canvass for the election this year.  Why bother?  Indiana was being rated as firmly Republican.

After voting by absentee ballot, therefore, I dealt with November and the Presidential elections (double whammy, that) with a formidable orgy of escape reading.

I read Jane Haddam's Flowering Judas and Amanda Cross's The Puzzled Heart and An Imperfect Spy.

These women always make for good reading.  They don't shirk from political and social commentary.

Not that they should be lumped together.  They are both mystery writers, true, but very different in their protagonists.

Amanda Cross is now deceased, alas.  I'll miss her sleuth's reserved hauteur (well, sorry, but sometimes it amounts to that) and dry wit.

Jane Haddam, whose approach to life is much juicier and succulent in spite of Demarkian's melancholy (or is it just simple irritability?) will continue, I hope, to give us much to look forward to.

Oh, Gee, and of course I have been reading Thomas Hardy on my Kindle when I can't sleep at night.  The Trumpet Major is a good one although behaviorally kind of inexplicable by modern standards.  This gives a really good picture of a small coastal town's (and indirectly some of the King's) response to the threat of Napoleon. 


October 24, 2012

Nonbeliever Nation is a wake-up call that I don't believe I needed.  On the other hand, I had definitely been hitting the snooze button.

In other words David Niose has confirmed my fear that an openly secular person has trouble getting elected to public office.

I have felt a definite cooling of personal relations here in Indiana maybe because of my Agnostic status.  It is hard to tell, though, because people can warm towards a person and cool off again for all kinds of reasons!  In my experience, people do not tell you about their feelings directly, and if someone has chosen an unpleasant way to indirectly convey disapproval of or disenchantment with me, I generally allow them to distance themselves without challenge.

Freedom of/from religion and freedom of/from association are both important to me!

David Niose has tried to explode myths that correlate religious belief with patriotism and moral behavior.

The scary thing is, as he has mentioned, just because a person is intelligent doesn't mean he will listen to reason or respect your right to avail yourself of your God-given (heh, joke) right to choose your freedom from religion and association.

The even scarier thing is that some people think that a direct link to God puts them above ordinary laws.

A scary story that isn't based on the paranormal!

Just in time for Halloween!

Yay!  (I think.)

October 11, 2012

Two fiction interludes:

Chasing the Dragon by Dominic Stanberry is a nostalgia-laden dark tale set in San Francisco with a protagonist who works for a mysterious high-level governmental organization trying to... oh I forget really what it was all about - too cloak and dagger really for me.  You really can't be sure what side (what side?  What of twenty sides?) you are rooting for.

Ha, too many roots in this one.  Maybe it's just me.  Just as well I can't remember - wouldn't want to ruin it for you.

I probably wouldn't have picked up Withering Tights if I'd known it was a Young Adult book;  having said that, I do like to expose myself occasionally to literature intended for the young.

What does that category really indicate, anyway?

Robert Cormier was not originally intending to write for young adults, and quite frankly I'm not sure I Am the Cheese and The Chocolate War are highly appropriate reading for teenagers.

I have seen Henry James' The Golden Bowl with a YA label, and it is hard to see Withering Tights in the same class.

Withering Tights is about a fourteen-year-old girl whose concerned about a first kiss and it seems to me the reading and humor level is for a sub-teen.

On the other hand, I read it through and was even mildly amused.

Seconds?  No thanks, Louise Rennison - the protagonist of this one would consider me an ancient adult - but it is nice to know you are out there.  Imagination and spunk you have!

 October 3, 2012

You Can Go Home Again hasn't convinced me, but it is a fascinating study of families.

I had already started thinking about some of the stuff that Monica McGoldrich has brought up, but she has made me aware of even more.

(For instance, you might decide to make a big life change like getting married after a family member dies.  Maybe it shakes you up so much that you are more open to change.)

I guess the thing I am not convinced of is that I would want to go home again.  It takes change in more than one person to change a family dynamic.

That said, my sisters and I have pulled together a lot in elder care, and this book helps me to see some more of the family patterns that were unfortunately continued by my mom and dad.

Can we all rise above it?  Well, McGoldrich has tried to help, but reading about Margaret Mead's daughter's success in putting family ghosts to rest isn't nearly as exciting and compelling as learning about all the extremely troubled families (the Brontes, the Wrights, the Franklins and many others) described in the book.

And therein, probably, lies an indication of my own pathology!

September 25, 2012

When I was in high school I read Atlas Shrugged.  Although I wasn't by any means converted to being an Ayn Rand disciple (in those days a good deal of what I read was novel to me so I perhaps did not realize its significance) I found it powerful enough and interesting enough to read The Fountainhead.

With that book Ayn Rand lost me as a reader forever.  Its one-dimensional lifeview and self-concentric hero was a real turn-off.  I found her humorless and dogmatic (although I might not have used that word at the time.)  I dismissed Ayn Rand and assumed most other people did.

Imagine my surprise to hear her name coming up again and again forty-five years later.  Wha--  you mean people took her seriously?

When I saw Ayn Rand and the World She Made on the shelf at the public library, I decided to try to find out what made Ayn Rand tick.  When I read in the preface that Anne C. Heller was denied access to Rand's papers by the Ayn Rand Institute because she was not a proponent of Rand's ideas, I almost put the book down again.

I'm glad I didn't.  Ayn Rand provided plenty of fodder for a biography banquet and who would want to consume more?  Not me.

The biography about Ayn Rand I just finished reading has shed more light on her and made me more compassionate towards her as a pretty much insane or at least highly mentally disordered individual.

Describing Ayn Rand as not only intellectually acute but highly passionate, this study is enough to make you doubt Karl Jung's toggle theory of thinking/feeling.  Until, that is, you realize that what she chose to think about was pretty darn narrow:  her own construct of how the world should be.

When it comes to her personal life - she wasn't thoughtful; she was obsessed and blinded by passion.

Possessed of personal magnetism and charm as well as intelligence, her positive qualities were enough to enslave a good many people in a hero worship that runs quite contrary to her own doctrine of individualism and self-direction.  It is the only way to explain how so many people could support her to their own detriment.

When I read about her personal life, it created an image of big snakes writhing around in a small space.  What a mess!  What a pit of vipers in her own mind and the minds and motives of some of those around her!

I've made my share of messes, so I'm not too judgmental of her in that regard.  My own destructive actions might have been bigger if I had been more rich and powerful and had her intense me-first attitude.  The problem is, her philosophy made her unable to fight her own demons, or even recognize them as such.

This biography helps me understand Ayn Rand, but it does not convert me to her ideas.  Quite the contrary - and I have a sneaking suspicion Anne Heller wouldn't mind at all!


September 16-17, 2012

I love Chris Hayes!  (Like a son, like a son!)

Twilight of the Elites is all about why institutions of the our society are increasingly distrusted and failing us miserably.  In his treatment of the issues he references many facets of society and many thinkers (e.g. Michels' Iron Law of Oligarchy).

Don't miss this book.  Hayes is right on.  He convinces with well thought out arguments and facts.  He also invents colorful expressions like "fractal inequality" that help illustrate his points.

I knew things were worse in the US than they were when I was young - that there is more economic inequality - and I kind of had an idea why (what I would call the "ossification of society", where the social order becomes too entrenched in a set pattern to allow real equality of opportunity) - but it is worse than I thought!

His explication of the inequalities within the 1% are worth picking up the book to read, but there is more.  There's more!

Part of the story he tells you will have already observed and read about.  Other parts will be new to you.

No one has put these ideas together like Christopher Hayes.

Kudos!  Exciting stuff!  Do you know the story behind Social Security?  Anything about Wikipedia?  What Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party have in common?

(Required reading above all other required reading.)


September 11, 2012

Martha Grimes had me going for a little while in Dakota.  For a while I hoped that the tall dark stranger inquiring about Andi was - but no, if you have similar fantasies I don't want to ruin them for you!

If I ate much pork this book would make me feel guilty.  If I were on Premarin this book might make me feel guilty.

It is hard to feel guilty, though, for not emulating Grimes' protagonist because she is a reincarnated St. Francis, evidently, and which of us really wants to be a saint?

Even saints don't want to be saints.  It seems that they just have no choice.

Fascinating characters, fascinating situations.

Let's see, I haven't had any pork for how many months?  I would like to say this book makes me promise never again, but I won't.  And I still eat chicken despite the horror stories about chicken farms.

I'm looking forward to the author's next book, in spite of the grimness of her recent decade's writing.  I know she's older than I, but is this kind of worldview what I have to look forward to?  

Martha Grimes has not lost her sense of humor.  Er, or at least some of her characters haven't lost their sense of humor.  But oh, where is the sense of light-hearted whimsy and cheerful bounce of life that used to grace her stories when seen through even Richard Jury's subdued tortured eyes?

Whatever happened to Polly Praed?

September 7, 2012

Service with a Smile is even sillier than the last P.G. Wodehouse novel I read.  "He must really be getting old," I thought, and looked at the copyright date.

He was.

I have to say, though, he had so much fun with what he was doing that I was completely won over.  Potty of course, but nothing entertains like conversations with one's guardian angel which - but no, I wouldn't want to ruin it for you!

Suffice it to say there are more levels of guardian angels (and more levels to the guardian angels!) than a human merely being has any right to expect!  Fun.

September 3, 2012

Ever heard of Secretariat?  The horse, of course.  Of course you have!

How about Eclipse?  Me neither, but Eclipse was Secretariat's sixteen-greats grandad.

I bet most of us don't know the names of our ancestors from the later seventeen-hundreds, but well-bred thoroughbreds (a tautology?) do!  That's when Eclipse was the winningest horse in England.  In fact, Eclipse's pedigree boasts the Godolphin Arabian and the Darley Arabian both.

Eclipse by Nicholas Clee tells all about it in his book which also talks about English racing in general, Eclipse's owners, and Eclipse's posterity, as well as tangential characters (a bawdy horse book?  Yes!) of historical and/or prurient interest.

Well, let's face it.  Even reading about the Church won't spare you from scandalous and scurrious subject matter.  What do you expect from horse racing?

Entertainment.  And you'll get it here.  Thanks, Nicholas Clee!

August 27, 2012

Nearly beat by the heat, I picked up Kinky Friedman's Kill Two Birds & Get Stoned to escape.

It was like turning up the heat!  I'm sure I've read a book of his before, but although it was bizarre, I don't remember it being this, well, er, kin - no, I can't be that corny!

(Maybe I should write whodunnits by Corny Powell (short for Cornelia, of course.)

This tale of a feckless writer and two sociopaths has charm and humor, of course.  I especially liked the use of Donald Trump's credit card and his - well, I won't ruin it for you.

But this is definitely summer reading.  Summer beach reading.  And I didn't have a beach!

Looking at the photo inside the jacket, I could swear I used to see him hanging out in Santa Fe, New Mexico occasionally.  Maybe it is just the colorful wishful thinking of someone who now hangs out in southern Indiana and never sees someone in a cowboy hat anymore.

Creepy acknowledgement!  You have raised our curiosity about these two, Kinky?  Did real life prototypes exist that you twisted into your creatures weird and unworldly?  Maybe write real biographies.  I'm sure under the sponsorship of your pen they would be just as interesting.

Hmm.  I think Kinky Friedman will have to become autumn riverside reading.

Current fictional (ha, ha, I almost wrote fectional) kinkiness disposed of with the flick of a roach, I picked up current nonfictional kinkiness in the autobiographical Leaving the Saints by Martha Beck.

For one reason or another I have read a lot about the Mormons lately (see my Book Butterflies series of articles on this website if you wanna know what) but this one gave me some new details, as well as being the history (some Mormons would say the hysteria) of a former member.

I take this book at face value.  No one should have to doubt and test themselves as this woman has done.  I believe in the possible existence of false memories.  I also believe in real memories and repression.  Beck's experience (and a lot of the other stuff I have read about the Mormons) makes me believe her over her father.

And have you heard about the Egyptian papyri?  This is a delicious story and fits right in with what I have read about Joseph Smith in the past.

Martha Beck has managed to combine heart-searing horrid experience with hysterical irony within the covers of her book.  Read it, read it.

Incidentally, I read this for the Madison Indiana public library's book club meeting this month.  I'm going to return it this evening and there is plenty of time to read it before our next meeting, if any local is interested.  You won't find it dull - either the book or the meeting.

Lastly, another paperback by Robert B. Parker, Mortal Stakes which was probably one of Spenser's first tales.  Interesting to see a younger Spenser not yet committed solely to Susan Silverman.  Also interesting to date him by his reminiscences of the clipclop of the milkman's horse in the early mornings of his childhood.

An interesting book, remarkable by the use of a wonderful word, "squeezee."  I'm amazed it hasn't become part of the common vernacular!  I'm determined to use it as often as possible, perhaps expanding the meaning.

Curious?  Well, you're meant to be.  Read the book!  

August 10, 2012

The Jefferson County's public library book club book for the month of August is Merry Hall by Beverley Nichols.

He describes falling in love with the big old house and its lilies.  His tales of house renovation and description of his relationship with the gardener who worked for two masters before him are lively.

His relationships with women are fraught.  Don't read this book unless you are prepared to deal with a deadly dose of misogyny.  The only antidote to it is his sense of humor - it will keep you laughing in spite of this book's lack of political correctness.

Still - the reader can't help but wonder if he wrote this book partly to get these women out of his hair forever.

Nichols was prolific.  He wrote murder mysteries and gardening books as well as his articles as a career journalist.

Qatar: A Modern History by Allen J. Fromherz is a more serious read.  Slender as it was, it was hard going for me and I broke up the reading of it with a Spencer novel by Robert Parker the name of which I don't at the moment recall.  It doesn't matter - Parker is consistently entertaining.

I'm in no position to judge Qatar as a Middle Eastern history, having never read one before.  Fromherz's treatment seems balanced to me.  I learned a lot about a country I had never remembered hearing about before recent years, and it has been around a long time!

The language is a little odd in places, the printing is replete with errors, but it is nevertheless fascinating to read about this strange society with relatively few citizens and very restricted economic options.  Where there used to be a one-product economy based on pearls there now seems to be one based on oil and natural gas.

Not the whole story, of course!  An interesting subject worth perusing, even if it is a little reminiscent of a textbook.

Am I being unfair?  Well, read it and let me know!  I'll be guarantee every page will teach you something you didn't know unless the Middle East is your specialty.  Even then, maybe.

July 28, 2012

Julie Zickefoose's The Bluebird Effect is to human-bird interactions as Kroodsma is to bird song, although I haven't read Kroodsma's book yet.

These folks are willing to scramble!  I am lost in adoration of their passion, their knowledge and their energy in doing what they do.

Zickefoose gets up close and personal with birds as only the owl-lady has (I've written about her book in another place) and is even more varied in her species experience.

(Having had one zebra finch, I fail to believe that the owl lady kept umpteen of them around except as occasional birdfood when she ran out of mice!  (Oh no, that's right, maybe they were quiet around the barn owl.)

And did you know that the sandhill crane is a legally hunted species whose numbers are threatened?  I didn't, and I'm a birdlover who lived in New Mexico (a major flyway) for thirty years!

Anyway, Julie is not just a bird savior but an activist who helped save shorebirds.  She also has included a highly descriptive article about the ivory-billed woodpecker in this wonderful compendium of bird stories.  Highly sentimental but also scientific.  Makes you wonder if Jung was correct in his toggle perception of feeling/thought.

In an insightful book about our own species, Michael Addis has written about the silences of men in Invisible Men.  This very readable book will shake up what you think you know about the sexes.  It should be required reading for everyone, but I bet I know who will read it most!  (There I go, being sexist again!)

You'd think I hadn't read the book! 

July 16, 2012

Read a couple more Thomas Hardy novels on my Kindle - A Pair of Blue Eyes and Far From the Madding Crowd.  I enjoyed both of these - A Pair of Blue Eyes is almost humorously noir at the end, although maybe not intended to be so.

Far From the Madding Crowd is probably Hardy's best-known novel, and I can see why.  I enjoyed it pretty much throughout (even though I sometimes think that his life-view is mostly that of frustration.)  This novel is vivid and intense and descriptive of country life without the dark turn some of his later works (that I have read in the past) take.  Great reading!  Not ponderous at all, but still worthwhile.  (Although, honestly, a book being ponderous almost automatically makes me think it isn't worth reading.)

I just finished The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie a book club reading for here at the Madison Public Library.  At first I hated it, but I have to admit it was entertaining and I got into it.  Worth reading?  Maybe not - except sheerly for fun.  It seems like a kid's book to me - murder notwithstanding.  After all, the heroine is a child and kids are actually quite bloodthirsty, no?  Alan Bradley is amusing, but if the facts are the only thing you learn from a cosy, they should be accurate.  I think deadly nightshade is quite common - but I live in the U.S. and this book is set in Britain.  Maybe the plant is less common there.

July 2, 2012

In the last two weeks I have read a couple of good recent books.

The first is The Animal Connection by Pat Shipman.  Her thesis is that humans evolved into the people we are partly because of our interaction with the animal world, in particular through hunting and domestication.

I am no logician, but some of her logic doesn't make sense to me.  Her introduction of the word "connection" in the course of her text (as opposed to any in the preface or intro or forward or whatever precedes her arguments (I'm working from memory here)) seems to come out of the blue.

Still, I liked the book - found it very interesting and challenging to all the conventional wisdom I have had dished up to me over the course of the decades about our primitive life as a species.

There is no doubt in my mind that she is correct about our connection.  As I child I wanted a furry pet, and though I have gotten away from the desire for a four-legged domestic companion, I love to see living furred and feathered creatures in the wild.

Shipman will also catch the reader up to much of the more recent fossil discoveries and dating techniques.  Anthropologists have gotten quite good at figuring out what the presence of skeletons (both with regards to species and numbers) in a prehistoric dig might represent and why their analyses might be valid.

Exciting stuff.  Really.

Another book that I have enjoyed is Situations Matter:  Understanding How Context Transforms Your World by Sam Sommers.

Unlike the preceding book, this one was based more on what I have kept up with on my own - the attempt to understand why humans behave the way they do.  The first half of his book talks about stuff I had already been exposed to (yeah, yeah) but his comment around the middle referring to something his readers might recall made me realize that for many of his youthful (like him) readers these incidents and illustrative horrors might be new.

Ah, the privilege of aging!

Anyway, Sommers writes with casual humor and playfulness that I like a lot.  At the same time, he really has synthesized a good deal of recent research that I had not yet read about that allows him new insights into who we are and that we behave more unconsciously than we think we do - often in not good ways.

His arguments convince me more than ever that we should all just throw self-righteousness out the window.

Easier said than done, and it is only July now anyway!  Give me some time and I will psych myself up for a worthwhile New Year's resolution.

I also am disappointed that Sommers (I feel that I should call him Sam, he is so casual) does not challenge my right (in my own mind) to call myself the Queen of Introspection.  Rather, he talks as if my crown isn't worth much - kind of like saying, "Well, bully for you."

How could he?

Well, basically,  Sam argues that we can't get to the often unfortunate untruth of ourselves by looking inward because it is basically too dark in there (er, in here) to see.  Or perhaps conversely, that we are blinded by the highly reflective mirror of self-love.  Psychological testing on people comes up with the truth more successfully, it seems.

Well, I believe it.

And I also hope that that airline employee doesn't read Situations Matter because - oops!  Wouldn't want to ruin it for you!

This is a book definitely worth reading.

June 16, 2012

For those of you who don't believe in coincidence, here is one for you.

I don't believe I have ever heard of a public hanging of an animal before, and in one day I read of two!

The first case was the hanging of a Great Auk accused of causing the storm that almost drowned it.  (Men were obviously projecting a form of condition on the poor bird that can only be called human - the condition of wrongdoing that sweeps up the agent of cause it the havoc of the consequences.)

I read about this hanging in Scapegoat:  A History of Blaming Other People by Charlie Campbell.  The smallness of this volume belies the quantity of scapegoating that has gone on since the beginning of time, but Campbell has discovered some amazing cases involving issues of animal as well as human rights that are mind-boggling but ring very true.  If you have read Daniel Quinn's Ishmael you might find these illustrations especially arresting and meaningful.

You really don't need any other background for reading Scapegoat, though.  How we got in the habit of blaming is explicated here in a very convincing way.

An enlightening book.  Read it!

The second example of animal hanging is a real happening in the good old U.S.A.  This poor creature, an elephant, was subject to a trial much more recently than the Great Auk (which sighting was evidently the last ever of the big bird) in the nineteenth century, when we should have known better.

I read about the elephant-hanging in a fiction work, Sharyn McCrumb's The Devil Amongst the Lawyers.  This is not my favorite of her works, but it is really fascinating, being a fictionalized account of a real trial (er, I mean a real trial of a human although maybe the whole point is that it wasn't a real trial either.)

I do like Sharyn McCrumb's work.  Lately I also read her book Sick of Shadows, an obviously earlier and more simplistic work.  If you have a choice between those two, definitely pick the Devil one.  Ha, does that make me the Devil's advocate?


June 15, 2012

Have to have my share of cosies - how about one set in Africa?  I have talked about this author before - Alexander McCall-Smith and his No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Series.  This one is The Good Husband of Zebra Drive.

His characters are really quite contemplative - such a nice contrast to rock'em knock'em bulldozing types.

I liked this as much as the others, but sometimes the comfortable words of wisdom just don't make any sense.  Well, that's okay I guess, but tends to make me more cynical than I already am about cosies.  Or should I say cozies?  I forget which country spells the word which way, let alone how I usually spell it!

The schools in the U.S. would have it that judgement is a mispelling, but I won't concede.

Is a cosy with any other spelling any less comforting?

Well.  These are good books for when you are down.  Or it is raining outside.  Or you want to get out of the U.S. - fast.  But slow down.  You might want to get out of the country, but you won't, by reading these books, get out of the country.


I Go Pogo!  For those of you who are nostalgic Pogo lovers, the first volume of a twelve volume complete sydicated comic strips has been published:  Pogo Through the Wild Blue Wonder.

When I read these, I can't help thinking, "Gee, he is so true to life!"  And then I think, "Or has my view of life been formed largely by reading Pogo?"

Some of these strike me as familiar even though they came out when I was an unreading toddler.  Maybe some of them were featured in I Go Pogo, which I have read as an adult.

At any rate, Walt Kelly is well represented here, and some of the artistry and explanations of the creative limitations and boundaries of the cartoon form are explained.  I look forward to reading them as they are published.  One every year or two might be a good pace, though.  Don't want to overdose!

June 7, 2012

Boy, do I have some great books for you!  The two best are nonfiction, Birdsong by Don Stap about Don Kroodsma's and others' work trying to explain facts about birdsongs I never even thought to wonder about, and Mycophilia by Eugenia Bone, doing the same thing with regards to the properties of mushrooms and other fungi, only ranging over an even broader field of activities.

 No, you brat, there are no singing mushrooms as far as I know; but there are some mushrooms that just might make you sing!

Interested in becoming a real naturalist?

If you want to study birdsong, you better count on becoming an early riser and ardent scrambler through underbrush!  Kroodsma's hutzpah and dedication have put me to shame.  Even in my youth, if a bird disappeared into the shrubbery I never thought to pursue it.  Too much respect for my bird quarry's privacy, or disinclination to get scratched up and dirty?  One guess.

I had already begun to wonder how different individual songbirds' calls could be, and now I can affirm that they can really vary!   Except - did you know that in some groups species' calls are innate, while in others... oops!  Don't want to ruin it for you - read the book!

I will tell you this, though.  Reading this book will make you listen to your local adolescent perching birds in a whole new way.  It will also inspire you to listen to Mozart.  Honest!

I sing the praises of songbirds and Birdsong, and urge you to check it out of your local library before they discard it for non-use, as they did here in Madison.  It doesn't deserve such a fate.

As for Mycophilia, aside from some irritation inspired by the writer, I loved it!

I'm not going to tell you why she bugged me - we all have our buttons (not just mushrooms, ha!) and my negative feelings for her were washed away by the incredible amount of information she purveys about a huge subject that has facets I had never dreamed of.

After hearing in the nineteen-seventies about mushroom experts who died after eating mushrooms they had collected themselves, I threw up my hands at the idea of collecting them from the wild.  My family and I did enjoy looking at them while hiking; even in the relatively dry mountains of New Mexico there are an amazing numbers of interesting fungal critters after a rain.

Bone has a real talent for giving you gobs of information while leaving you still begging for more.  Would you believe she had reason to mention John Cage, the price of a trained truffle-hunting dog, and a Siberian tribe that uses psychedelic mushrooms and then recycles their essences by - well, I will say no more.  Eugenia says it all!

If you are not sure you want to read the book, take a look at the little photos sprinkled through it.  If those don't arouse your curiosity, then all I can say is, you maybe need some shrooms.

Environmentalists should definitely read this book, especially the later chapters.

Oh, if nonfiction had only been written so interestingly as these two books all my life!

May 23, 2012

For several months before our move I did some desultory reading over my breakfast:  Bernard Shaw and the Actresses, by Margot Peters.  I loved it!  The only way I can explain my slow progress through it is that a little of Bernard Shaw goes a long way.  The interplay that went on (probably still does) between actors and actresses, the playwrights and critics who love/hate them, and the hard realities of the theatrical business is rich fare also, and best taken in small doses.

I have to say, though, that I enjoyed it as much as anything I have read since, in its (and Bernard Shaw's) combination of richness and asceticism.  His letters are amazing.

Gee, what have I read since then?  I reread Dick Francis' Odds Against and read for the first time Felix Francis' Dick Francis's Gamble.  Why Felix called his Gamble Dick Francis's I can only guess.  Is this from an outline or planned book of his father?  In trying to find out why it is so titled I learned that many if not all of Dick Francis' books were a collaboration between him and his wife, Mary.  Well, good grief.  If they both wrote them, it would have been nice to know.  Felix says his dad wanted to say they were by Dick and Mary Francis, but the publishers said no.

Why?  So female readers could fantasize about romance with the author the way females supposedly fantasize about entertainers?  Because the novels would lose the macho appeal that they have for their male readership?

Well, if perception was all, here in the U.S. Mary Francis didn't exist.  Sorry, Mary.

It just pisses me off that two people could contribute so much to a work of art and one of them be virtually ignored for some sort of (probably imaginary or at least very old-fashioned) business reason.

Well, now there is a third in the trio, Felix.  Welcome, Felix!  I love your books so far, and if you don't quite seem to have as much compassion in your characters as your father had, it is probably because the compassion was your mother's!  It is needed to offset the cruelty of the villains.

April 6, 2012

Recently finished another Wodehouse, No Nudes is Good Nudes.  Well, who could resist a title like that?

I'm not really surprised that the library still has so many Wodehouse titles, and I intend to read as many as I can before we move to our new location.

What could be a better de-stressor than an old-fashioned cosy without a murder, no police, and lots of laughs?

But if you are in a mood for something more contemporary, Hilma Wolitzer has written a more serious novel about a widowers re-entry into the realm of the relations between nonrelational sexes, if you know what I mean.  In other words, he still relates to his family but has to come to see that life can go on - well, actually, he doesn't have to and I am not going to ruin this book for you.

This is a good read, is An Available Man, with some interesting insights.

Wolitzer seems to believe timing is everything and that our happiness is pretty inadvertent.

Who am I too say that it's not so?


April 1, 2012

Revolutionary Characters by Gordon S. Wood created in my mind a revolution in understanding about our founding fathers.

Sure, I had alread read The Americanization of Ben Franklin, so I knew that his autobiography was hardly the denier cri of even his own lifetime, but I didn't realize what an ephemeral type our founding fathers were.

As in most revolutions, things went farther than the initiators ever thought they would, but when you look at a lot of other revolutions in other countries, you realize how fortunate we were in George Washington.

Ever wanted to find out more about Thomas Paine?  Even think he would be included in a list of only eight American revolutionaries?

If you like to get a new slant on old stories and background of our country's definitive initial decades, this book makes you want more, more!

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