Rivers and Books

“You can’t” Heraclitus said, “step into the same river twice.”  The same also applies to reviewing books on Goodreads.  I met my official pledge of 60 books “officially” a couple weeks back, but I had re-read two books already reviewed during the course of the previous month, so I’m actually up to 65 at the moment.  Not that this is a contest.  Well, it sorta is.  But the one thing that keeps coming back to me is that my reviews of the same book change after a couple of years.  In general I’m not a re-reader.  There are lots of books I want to read for the first time, and there are few, historically, that I’ve gone back and read again.  Right now, however, I’m working on a couple of books that require some going back and checking facts.  Whenever you write “X does not” you need to make sure X doesn’t.

Reading is a self-rewarding enterprise.  I’ve not stopped reading when I don’t post about books, but I’ve been reading bigger books.  Despite my academic background and current job as an editor, I’m a slow reader.  I always have been.  I set my Goodreads goal based on the fact that without commuting I hope to read five books a month.  I have to throw in some short ones to make such a goal, and I never count the children’s books (I read The Lorax several times this year) and I can’t count the books I read for work that haven’t yet been published.  Nevertheless I keep making my Goodreads pledge—it gives me a goal I can attain—and in a life where meeting goals is becoming more difficult all the time, I appreciate those I enjoy reaching.  Enjoy reading.

Goodreads is a community.  Some of my friends there comment on my blog posts, which is really neat because almost nobody comments on my blog itself.  It’s nice to have that little extra extension.  I skim through the reviews that come to my email inbox every day.  I like to know what others are reading and I get tips for future goals from the books my Goodreads’ buddies post.  And now that November looms—and over its shoulder I can see December—I think of the Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge.  I generally meet that goal by about September.  Reading books is like meeting new friends.  And some of them, unlike Heraclitus’ river, you can meet twice.

Winter Blossoms

Audur Ava Olafsdottir is a remarkable novelist. Iceland, of course, is held to be the most literate country in the world. I began reading Icelandic fiction of a considerably earlier period while living in Scotland. There was still a trace of Scandinavian heritage from Viking days discernible there, particularly in the Orkney Islands. I started taking on reading challenges three years ago. Given that I spend many hours a week sitting on a bus, it seemed natural enough to put my time toward a specific goal. The Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge encourages me to move beyond the bounds of my usual fare. One of the categories for this year’s challenge is a translated book. I enjoyed Olafsdottir’s Butterflies in November so much last year that I selected The Greenhouse for this year’s translated offering.

The story of two young people who accidentally have a child together, the tale makes effective use of religious imagery in reflective ways. The young man takes a job in a monastery rose garden in a remote country. When his one-night stand visits him to have him watch his daughter while she finishes her thesis, everyone notices how miraculous the child is. She even bears a striking resemblance to baby Jesus in the painting in the chapel. The narrative is gentle and reflective. The monks are drawn out of their scriptorium by the beauty of the roses and the child that is so intimately tied up with them. There’s nothing preachy, or even overtly religious here. It’s a simple reflection that religion pervades life, even in secular Europe.

One of the saddest realities of the present is that religion has made itself so odious to so many. Human beings are naturally inclined toward religious thoughts and behaviors. When any form of orthodoxy enters the picture, though, it begins to fall apart. The young couple, unmarried—not even girlfriend and boyfriend really—transform the town they’re in, making it a more habitable and humane place. They’re not condemned for “living in sin.” Even a priest admits things can get pretty complicated where relationships are concerned. A coming of age novel, The Greenhouse has Icelandic magic that comes through even in translation. Olafsdottir is a novelist who doesn’t feel the need to apologize for describing what is plainly obvious to those who pay attention: religion is all around us, and it need not be something to condemn. In fact, if cultivated without the acidic soil of orthodoxy it might even make the world a better place.

New Year’s Resistance

Now that 2016 is safely behind us, it’s time to start looking ahead to a year of peaceful protest and renewed social activism. When you reach a certain point in your life you’d like to think your country will represent your best interest but the crooked electoral college system with which we’re shackled has lived up to unthinking obedience to convention. Now we all will pay the price. Not all protest has to be highly visible, however. Education has a way of improving things even if done subtly. The key is not to let up. The moment we do, the evil Borg will assimilate us. I’m beginning my new year with a literary protest against ignorance. I mentioned Modern Mrs. Darcy’s reading challenge yesterday. It doesn’t have to be that one, but taking on a reading challenge—any educational imperative will do—is a way of saying that the darkness can’t last forever.

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2016 was a busy year, in spite of its many challenges. I wrote two books during the course of the year. Don’t go rushing to Amazon, because neither has been published. One likely never will be, although I have high hopes for my most recent effort. I write this not to draw attention to myself, but to suggest yet another form of social protest. Writing is a powerful tool. Long ago one of the most influential people in my life, a high school English teacher, told our creative writing club to write at least 15 minutes a day. There have been times when I’ve slipped, but by far the majority of my days since then have included spells of writing at least that long. This blog is only one outlet, in addition to the fiction and non-fiction I also write. Write your protest! Your thoughts can’t be known if you don’t share them!

Most important of all, we can’t give up hope. The end of the story hasn’t been written yet. We know that Trump lost the popular vote by an historic landslide of almost 3 million. Many, many, many, many, many people are unhappy with the results of this election. The mistake is to think that so many citizens are powerless. We’re not. Even before last year ended I committed to the peaceful march on Washington the day after the “inauguration.” We need to stand up and be counted. We need to say we’re just as American as the bullies who’ve taken over the schoolyard. And we need to continue to educate this country, no matter how reluctant it may be to pre-post-truth.

2016 in Books

As is my custom on this last post of the year I’ll be revisiting the books that made an especial difference to me in 2016. I record most books I finish on Goodreads, and I welcome friends in that venue. I draw on their recollection for what I’ve read and all of the books I mention here have individual posts on this blog. Use the search function. It’s free!

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The first important book was Scott W. Gustafson’s At the Altar of Wall Street. If you missed this one, it is well worth your time. Economics has become a religion. If you doubt that, look at 11/9 and tell me so. Philip Gulley’s The Quaker Way was also an early read that’s worth revisiting. November has made many of these books more important than they seemed at the time. Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal’s The Super Natural will expand the minds of those who allow for unconventional possibilities. And Marc Bekoff’s Minding Animals will remind us we’re not alone on this planet. The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery was a book I really couldn’t put down, and a nice complement to Bekoff. Marcelo Gleiser touched a chord with The Simple Beauty of the Unexpected, a book worthy of anyone who wants to consider how science and humanity might cooperate for everyone’s benefit. While not really a reading-through book, Tristan Gooley’s The Lost Art of Reading Nature’s Signs is important and worthy of attention.

In the realm of monsters, Elizabeth Baer’s The Golem Redux was a fantastic introduction to a Jewish legend that I revisited in three more books over the year. Several other monster books followed, but especially memorable were Carol Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws, and Maya Barzilai’s Golem—please be patient with me regarding this one. I haven’t written a post on it yet, since an official review has yet to be published. Alexandra Petri’s A Field Guide to Awkward Silences won her an instant fan. I’ll read anything she writes. I didn’t give Alice Miller’s The Drama of the Gifted Child the attention it deserves. It’s kind of a personal thing. Kyle Arnold’s The Divine Madness of Philip K. Dick was utterly fascinating, looking at another person Miller would have found intriguing. Also on the topic of writers, Melville’s Bibles by Ilana Pardes spoke deeply to me.

For fiction, highly recommended are Amy Tomson’s The Color of Distance, Peter Rock’s My Abandonment, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Toni Morrison’s, The Bluest Eye, Pete Hamill’s Snow in August, and Jennifer McMahon’s The Winter People. Less profound, but thoroughly enjoyable were Jonathan L. Howard’s Carter and Lovecraft, and Jasper Fforde’s The Woman Who Died a Lot (reading anything by Jasper Fforde is time well spent). My childhood favorite, Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants retains its magic.

According to Goodreads, I finished 106 this year. Along the way I finished the 2016 Modern Mrs. Darcy reading challenge. Many of the books were excellent, and this shortlist represents those that idiosyncratically stick out in my mind. Please participate in a show of hope for the future: make 2017 a year of reading.