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Archive for August, 2010

August New Yorkers

It felt weird for the last few months, because of classwork (and the short-lived book-a-day project), to be unable to comment on New Yorker articles that others had read.  Before picking up my next book, I settled down with the most recent issues to catch up:

August 30:  A good issue.  I enjoyed the article about the “laughing Guru” (“Letter from India”) and tried some fake laughter (discreetly, to myself) to keep my spirits up during a trying day at Dana Farber.  I also gained strength from thinking about Gawande’s article mentioned below, and a cartoon, with a maze entitled “Life,” and a clueless person standing in front of it. The issue about the dreadful Koch brothers trying to ruin the country for their own corporate greed and self-interest is depressing (“Covert Operations”) and I also liked the quiet, sad story, “The Science of Flight” by Yiyun Li. Ian Frazier’s account of the gulag’s in Russia (“On the Prison Highway”) was nicely done, interesting and philosophical, leaving a feeling of despair at the evil that men do.  I also liked Adam Gopnik on Winston Churchill (“Winston Churchill’s Finest Hour”) which was probably the  most interesting to me. I haven’t figured out what to think of Churchill, although I’m inclined to admire him.  Also of interest were two slightly contradictory views of Stalin,  with Frazier indicating that Stalin is not judged as harshly as Hitler (“The world more or less knows what it thinks of Hitler….somehow Stalin gets a pass”).  He notes the millions that Hitler killed, but Stalin’s victims are harder to count between those starved through his pollicies, those executed, and those worked to death in the camps. The estimate is 55 to 65 million Russians dying of unnatural causes from 1917 through 1992, a majority probably due to Stalin.  Weirdly, Stalin seems to be growing in popularity in Russia.  Frazier also draws a comparison between Hitler and Stalin, stating that Churchill knew the difference between Stalin and Satan.  He notes that at Stalingrad  “the brutality and waste of the Stalinist regime…is sickening” but the murderousness of the Nazi invaders…is satanic.”  Churchill negotiated with Stalin, for which he has been castigated, but perhaps there was no other choice and, as Gopnik suggests, perhaps he “played a pitifully weak hand rather well.”

August 16-23:  Patricia Marx with her inimitable shopping style and commentary turns to automobiles (“The Driver’s Seat”) – she likens the Smart Car to a lunchbox – so apt! I also liked Joan Acocella’s article about Agatha Christie.

August 9: This was a good issue, with David Sedaris standing out for his funny, yet penetrating piece on airline travel and how we perceive our fellow passengers (“Our Unfriendly Skies”).  “The Empty Chamber” by George Packer depressed with its portrait of the way the Senate does (or more typically does not) do business. I also liked the fiction (“The Train of their Departure” – by David Bezmozgis – funny and smart).  Good cover, too.

August 2: “Letting Go” by Atul Gawande – a must-read!  Gawande is a hero of modern medicine, telling it like it is with clarity, compassion and honesty.  I also liked Elizabeth Kolbert on the state of fishing (“Is There Any Hope for Fish?”) and the Moscow traffic jam article was pretty funny (“Letter from Moscow”) though horrifying in its way.

I met a guy on the elevator yesterday who eyed my folded over New Yorker, and said, “The New Yorker, it’s like a part time job, isn’t it?”  I agreed, but said I was committed to it. In parting he said, “Of course, if you read the New Yorker, you don’t really need to read anything else to keep up with things.”  My sentiments exactly!

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Project book-a-day

Well, the quest to read a book a day in August met it’s untimely end on August 12th. I had read 11 books, so I suppose I could have continued on for another 20 days; however, the timing was off – between vacation, company, long sunny days (not a day of rain which is so unusual in NH) of swimming, canoeing, hiking and biking, it was difficult to find the time to read…If I try this again, it will be in January! Still, here’s the round-up of the final four:

August 8:  The Samurai’s Garden, by Gail Tsukiyama – didn’t really care for this. While interesting historical episodes in Japan and Shanghai were touched upon, nothing was developed, and the characters didn’t really earn my interest.

August 9: At Freddie’s, by Penelope Fitzgerald.  I love this author.  The Blue Flower is one of my favorite books, but I’m not sure why. This book also is somewhat odd, but the character of Freddie is priceless.  There is so much humor and wry observation and offbeat situations in all of her novels, she is always worth reading. That said, I barely finished this short book because of, once again, having too much fun!

August 10:  Abelard and Heloise, by Etienne Gilson.  Hmmm.  More a scholarly round-up of what has been written about them, then the famous story itself.  Still, the way Heloise has been portrayed and information about her life made her the most compelling of the two.  Pretty interesting, but more a guide for what to read then a book one would choose to read.

August 11:  Jane and the Man of the Cloth, by Stephanie Barron.  I have fantasized about a murder mystery where the authors who have co-opted, twisted, tortured and bastardized Jane Austen’s creations would keep turning up dead.  The mystery would be solved at the AGM of JASNA where all the members would confess, thus leading the detective to a deadend.  All would then toast to never reveal the identity of the murderer.  The first to go would be Emma Tennant, whose execrable writing turned Elizabeth and Darcy into a Harlequin romance couple.  That said, these somewhat light mysteries are enjoyable. They are respectful for the most part and historically accurate, carefully documented (with footnotes!) and fun to read.  I really liked the portrayal of Lyme in this one and finally got an accurate picture of the Cobb where Louisa Musgrove had her fall. The Heathcliff-like anti-hero is somewhat hard to take, but all in all, a good effort.

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More book-a-day

A Book a Day:  August 7, 2010:  The Optimist’s Daughter, Eudora Welty. 

I’m not sure if I’ve read that much Welty, beyond Losing Battles, Delta Wedding, and some short stories, but I should read more.  Her prose is clear, limpid, refreshingly smooth and supple.  You realize at once that good writing is rare, and that this is it.  While wondering what other books I should read by Eudora Welty, I discovered that The Optimist’s Daughter, which I picked up at the Gettysburg library book sale, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

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A Book a Day – August

This project was inspired by a New York Times article about a woman who actually read a book a day for a full year. I was quite impressed! I’ve also been taking classes since January which ended on July 31, so I am more than ready for some extra-curricular reading. Here is how my first week went:

Sunday, August 1: Herman Melville, by Elizabeth Hardwick.  This is a short book that gives a poignant sketch of Melville’s life and works.  Hardwick is not a conventional biographer; she doesn’t exhaust her subject nor her reader. Her own rolling sentences and quirky tone compel attention. She seems sorry that Melville had such a tough time of it, yet remains philosophical.  (This was an easy, confidence-builder for the first day – only about 140 pages and it’s been lying around my study waiting for attention).

Monday, August 2: The Brass Verdict, by Michael Connelly.  Another one that’s been in my bookpile. It was an ambitious choice at 580 pages , but Connelly is a fast read, and I had a 4 1/4 bus ride, plus commuter train, and 2-3 hour car ride on an adventurous journey to southeastern Pennsylvania. So, it was no problem.  This is a great trial book which was particularly interesting given my recent classes in litigation and legal research. It was fun seeing how an aggressive defense lawyer might apply the rules of discovery, jury selection and evidence.

Tuesday, August 3:  I chose a smaller book for this leg of the road trip to Gettysburg, since our car ride was only 1 1/2 hours. Longitude, by Dava Sobel, is another book that I’ve been wanting to read and it fit the optimal page number (175). This was a fascinating true story of an obsessed inventor who solved a great challenge – how to calculate longitude by use of a clock.  The descriptions of his clocks, all of which can be viewed in London or Greenwich made me want to see them in person.  (I read a bit in the morning and on the car ride, but was sitting around with friends, enjoying the evening when I was reminded that it was 11:48 p.m. and I still had 30 or so pages to go.  I finished the book at 12:21 am, and decided that my “day” would go from getting up to going to bed, not necessarily following a strict 24 hour timeframe.

Wednesday, August 4: I had found another slim book (179 pp) that I bought at a book sale a long time ago and never got around to reading:  Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman.  This was our day for touring the battle of Gettysburg, so I got up early to get a good start on the book before the day’s activities.  This was a strange, yet compelling attempt to track Einstein’s visions of time. The repeating motifs and versions of the Swiss city of Berne made me want to visit and walk its streets, view its river, towers, market squares.

Thursday, August 5: The Road from Coorain, Jill Ker Conway.  I picked this up at the library book sale in Gettysburg. I love her descriptions of the outback of Australia where she grew up; it’s almost as fascinating as reading about Antarctica! However, once they move away from the sheep plantation, the story wanes a bit and in the end grows somewhat tiresome. In addition, I had a nagging feeling that I had read it before.  I finished it during the long car ride back to New England.

Friday, August 6: The Woman Who Walked into Doors, Roddy Doyle. I never read Paddy Doyle, Ha, Ha, Ha, his first novel that got a lot of attention, but I’ve read some good short stories by him and like his style. This book was pretty good, especially in the beginning. The story of the young girl growing up and the choices presented to her is nothing short of tragic, but it’s told in an elliptic, unsentimental style. In the end though, the story became meandering and repetitive, the resolution unbelievable and many issues and questions left hanging. Still, for the most part, I couldn’t put it down and finished at 12:03 a.m. –

Saturday, August 7:  It’s 9:30 a.m., and I haven’t picked out my book yet!

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