A young, married couple fighting on Christmas day, from Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara.
“She walked out and then came back. “My present is at the bottom of the pile,” she said.
That made him feel worse. Under all the other packages was something she had bought days, maybe weeks, before, when things were not so bad as they now appeared to be. When she bought that she was concentrating on him and what he would like; rejecting this idea and that idea, and deciding on one thing because it was something he wanted or something he would want. Caroline was one person who really did put a lot of thought into a gift; she knew when to choose the obvious thing. One time she had given him handkerchiefs for Christmas; no one else had given him handkerchiefs, and they were what he wanted. And whatever was in that package, she had bought with him alone in mind. He could not guess from the size of the box what was inside it. He opened it. It was two gifts: a pigskin stud box, big enough to hold two sets of studs, with plenty of room inside for assorted collar buttons, collar pins, tie clasps—and Caroline had put in a dozen or so front and back collar buttons. The other gift was of pigskin, too; a handkerchief case that collapsed like an accordion. Both things had J. McH. E. stamped in small gilt letters on the top cover, and that in itself showed thought. She knew, and no one else in the world knew, that he liked things stamped J. McH. E., not just J. E., or J. M. E. Maybe she even knew why he liked it that way; he wasn’t sure himself.
He stood at the table, looking down at the handkerchief case and stud box, and was afraid. Upstairs was a girl who was a person. That he loved her seemed unimportant compared to what she was. He only loved her, which really made him a lot less than a friend or an acquaintance. Other people saw her and talked to her when she was herself, her great, important self. It was wrong, this idea that you know someone better because you have shared a bed and a bathroom with her. He knew, and not another human being knew, that she cried “I” or “high” in moments of great ecstasy. He knew, he alone knew her when she let herself go, when she herself was not sure whether she was wildly gay or wildly sad, but one and the other. But that did not mean that he knew her. Far from it. It only meant that he was closer to her when he was close, but (and this was the first time the thought had come to him) maybe farther away than anyone when he was not close. It certainly looked that way now. “Oh, I’m a son of a bitch,” he said.”
That he loved her seemed unimportant compared to what she was.
The giving and receiving of gifts, to me, is an agonizing social custom that I love and hate. I enjoy passages that capture the agony of it. I am also enjoying watching Julian struggle with his own awareness of what an asshole he is in this book.
"When I look at my life and its secret colours, I feel like bursting into tears. Like that sky. It’s rain and sun both, noon and midnight … I think of the lips I’ve kissed, and of the wretched child I was, and of the madness of life and the ambition that sometimes carries me away. I’m all those things at once. I’m sure there are times when you wouldn’t even recognize me. Extreme in misery, excessive in happiness—I can’t say it."
— Albert Camus, from A Happy Death (Gallimard, 1971)
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. My take away: This book had enough original characters and plot lines for ten books, but maybe not enough sense or purpose for the one? That said, I was wowed by the sheer density of its weirdness and creativity.
"Only a lunatic would want to be president. These lunatics are created deliberately by those who wish to be presided over. You’ve seen it a thousand times. We create a leader by locating one in the crowd who is standing up. This may well be because there are no chairs or because his knees are fused by arthritis. It doesn’t matter. We designate this victim as a ‘stand-up guy’ by the simple expedient of sitting down around him."
"We protect children because they have not yet proven themselves to be hamstrung shitholes. Granted, the odds are lousy that they’ll turn out any other way but it’s been known to happen." How I sometimes feel on any given day of working with kids and parents.
A woman, on buying a gun: "Guy, when I bought it, tried to sell me a little automatic. Told me a lady needed more than four shots. I say to him, Well, if I shoot some sonofabitch I’m not gonna miss, ya know. And he shuts up like a bank on Sunday. I think it’s a cute gun." I need to learn the skill of making people shut up like banks on Sunday.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple. Writer used to write for Arrested Development, so it’s very funny. Quick read. Gets a little absurd around the end.
An email to a friend the main character hasn’t seen in 20 years: "I suppose I should be honored or angry, but really the word would be nonplussed. (I just looked that up in the dictionary, and you know what’s funny? The first definition is "so surprised and embarrassed one doesn’t know how to react." The second definition is "not at all disturbed." No wonder I never know how to use it! In this case, I’m using it in the latter context.)
Paul Jellinek. How the hell are you? Are you mad at me? Longing for me because life’s just not the same without me? Nonplussed, in either the first or second sense of the word?
I believe I owe you a return phone call.” A small dip in the deep pool of the main character’s intense self-absorption, that I really enjoyed reading.
There are also tons of jokes about Seattle, Microsoft, Subaru parents, and Canadians, if you are into that kind of thing.
"…a certain quality of spirit, a gaiety, a sense of duty, a nobility worn lightly, a sweetness, a gentleness with women—the only good things the South ever had and the only things that really matter in this life.”
"Joyce is leaning on the sill, a brown-haired girl in a leather jacket. She has the voluptuous look of roommates left alone."
2. The Magus
"Handsomely quipped to fail, I went out into the world."
cras amet qui numquam amavit quique amavit cras amet
3. A Moveable Feast
"When spring came, even the false spring, there were no problems except where to be happiest."
4. Howards End
"She knew her own heart with a thoroughness that commonplace people believe impossible.”
"Away she hurried, not beautiful, not supremely brilliant, but filled with something that took the place of both qualities—something best described as a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encountered in her path through life.”
"A small girl, a piquant oval face, dark brown eyes, black hair; a simple white dress with a blue stripe in it; down to the ankles, sandals over bare feet…but it wasn’t only that. He had an immediate impression of someone alive, where everyone else had been dead; of someone who lived in the present, not in the past."
"The passage of time and the accidents of life wash ceaselessly about our feet many strangers, some of whom, thus wrecked upon the coast of our own lives, remain there. New deposits of friendship take the place of those sucked backward by the ebb."
"Was it, then, possible to keep a man without the carnal bond? She was beginning to think so. To be beloved, yet not to give herself: to be, at one and the same time, both femme fatale and amazon, irreproachable wife and adored mistress— a beautiful dream, perhaps, but entirely divorced from life as it is."
"Is this the cause of James Dillon’s agitated state of mind? Yes, I think so. Some strong pressure is certainly at work. What is more, it appears to me that this is a critical time for him, a lesser climacteric—a time that will settle him in that particular course that he will never leave again, but will persevere in for the rest of his life. It has often seemed to me that towards this period (in which we all three lie, more or less) men strike out their permanent characters; or have those characters struck into them. Merriment, roaring high spirits before this: then some chance concatenation, or some hidden predilection (or rather inherent bias) working through, and the man is in the road he cannot leave but must go on, making it deeper and deeper (a groove, or channel), until he is lost in his mere character—persona—no longer human, but an accretion of qualities belonging to this character."
Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander.
Brought back to my attention by a friend who added this: “I’m going to do everything I can to avoid this, because I often feel like I’ve stopped evolving and am descending into a caricature of myself.”
I could gush about Neal Stephenson for paragraphs/hours (and do, to those people in my life who probably won’t quit loving me—the same people who will usually listen to me describe my cinematic dreams at length).
Right now I’m reading Quicksilver, and it has convinced me that, much like Shakespeare, it is utterly impossible that Neal Stephenson could be only one man. Yes, I just compared Stephenson to Shakespeare, and I meant it, damn it.
It is difficult, as it was for Cryptonomicon, to pick favorite lines or imagery or excerpts from this book, simply because there is so much to choose from—the novel is, after all, 900 some-odd pages. Yet…
“The Dutch Ambassador rolled his eyes and tossed the waffle back over his shoulder—before it struck the ground, a stout, disconcertingly monkey-like dog sprang into the air and snatched it, and began to masticate it—literally—for the sound it made was like a homunculus squatting on the floor muttering, “masticate masticate masticate.”" I originally singled this passage out because it took me back to our high school debates (Garrett, Ross) about which words were and were not onomatopoeias (masticate? ejaculate?). Reading it now, it is twice as funny because Josh illuminated me on the meaning of the homunculus, making the visual that much more disturbing and hilarious.
“"What did he suppose you and Bob could get done in the real world?" “Carry messages across battlefields.” “Was he right?” “Half right.” “One of you succeeded, and the other—” “I didn’t fail. I just found more intelligent ways to use my time.”" A study on how I like any instance of insouciance towards unintelligent figures of authority, of which Jack Shaftoe provides many.
“"Thank you—you’ve brought me back to my question: what does the Doctor want?" “To translate all human knowledge into a new philosophical language, consisting of numbers. To write it down in a vast Encyclopedia that will be a sort of machine, not only for finding old knowledge but for making new, by carrying out certain logical operations on those numbers—and to employ all of this in a great project of bringing religious conflict to an end, and raising Vagabonds up out of squalor and liberating their potential energy—whatever that means.” “Speaking for myself, I’d like a pot of beer and, later, to have my face trapped between your inner thighs.” "It’s a big world—perhaps you and the Doctor can both realize your ambitions," she said after giving the matter some thought." Eliza’s my hero.
Looking forward to a winter break during which I can try to read 100 books.
Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin is awesome. She’s a great simple writer, an engaging essayist. And we share a lot of opinions on food and how to cook and eat it. (Like the frittata being one of the best things to cook and eat… ever.)
“Dinner alone is one of life’s pleasures. Certainly cooking for oneself reveals man at his weirdest. People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam." Undoubtedly true. The weirdest thing I’ve eaten alone, before my former Chicago roommates would return from work? Probably macaroni noodles with Catalina salad dressing and soy sauce. But I would make omelets/frittatas with whatever was around, including sunflower seeds, hot dogs and/or yesterday’s leftovers.
“Host- and hostessing, as we know, is often a heroic endeavor, requiring daring, ingenuity, a desire to take chances and a concern for others. These traits are also called for in saints and Nobel Prize winners." Such an undervalued art form.
More to come from this book and its sequel, I’m sure. I dig it.
"I acquired expensive habits and affected manners. I got a third-class degree and a first-class illusion that I was a poet. But nothing could have been less poetic than my pseudo-aristocratic, seeingthrough-all boredom with life in general and with making a living in particular. I was too green to know that all cynicism masks a failure to cope — an impotence, in short; and that to despise all effort is the greatest effort of all."
"She is one of those village beauties of which the South is so prodigal. From the loins of redneck pa and rockface ma spring these lovelies, these rosy-cheeked Anglo-Saxon lovelies, by the million. No one marvels at them; no one holds them dear."
— Walker Percy, The Moviegoer. I forced my friend to read this book, and now a quote from it is his gChat status about every other day, and it’s like I’m re-reading it. It is one of those few books that is infinitely quotable and also beautiful as a whole.
A novel by Marilynne Robinson. A review on the back of this book says that you will want to read it slow, because each sentence is beautiful and you don’t want to miss one, and I found that overwhelmingly true. Some of the passages I marked as I was reading are just three or four words long, valuable little phrases.
And lord it was sad. Reading about a barren western glacial lake when you are sitting next to the perfect blue-green gulf (as of yet, un-oil slicked) makes the setting of the novel even more potently unlivable.
Robinson’s synopsis is this: “Haunting, poetic story, drowned in water and light, about three generations of women.” Yes, and also about the burden of a household— particularly one in the strain of a small mountain town— and how to escape it.
"One day my grandmother must have carried out a basket of sheets to hang in the spring sunlight, […] performing the rituals of the ordinary as an act of faith." Men are cursory in this book. The actions of women take on significance.
"Old women she had known, first her grandmother and then her mother, rocked on their porches in the evenings and sang sad songs, and did not wish to be spoken to." I certainly understand a homemaker’s need for silence.
"She was an old woman, but she managed to look like a young woman with a ravaging disease."
"Such a separation, I imagined, could indeed lead to loneliness intense enough to make one conspicuous in bus stations."
"My cold, visceral dread of school I had learned to ignore." Ha, yeah.
On skipping school repeatedly: "All of this was too dreadful to consider, and every aspect of the situation grew worse with every day that passed, until we began to find a giddy and heavy-hearted pleasure in it. The combined effects of cold, tedium, guilt, loneliness, and dread sharpened our senses wonderfully." Sounds a bit like winter quarter in Evanston.
"Here and not elsewhere, thus and not otherwise." Despite a hate for the word “thus” that editing a certain coworker’s writing has instilled in me, this is one of those beautiful things you don’t want to miss by cruising through this book. Here’s another: "Such delicate improvisations fail."
"I have often noticed that it is almost intolerable to be looked at, to be watched, when one is idle. When one is idle and alone, the embarrassments of loneliness are almost endlessly compounded." Explains why people bury themselves in their work.
For a lover of well-crafted prose, this is a great read. Otherwise, it is slow in pace, sad and the material is generally very tough and ordinary and sad.
Luckily, I followed it up with a Michael Crichton beach read that I have finished 500 pages of in about 2 days. Vacation reading is wonderful. A book that’s salty and warped by the surf in my hand on the beach and all my friends and fam is my own personal LOST finale.