Tags: books

Fallen behind on the books for December

December is a great month to read. There are always blocks of time when you cannot rush around, when you are poised in between one task or another, when you are waiting to be called, when you are on the train. And there is little temptation to just go outdoors and bask, as one might in the summer. Snow is pretty, but the wind here is damp and vicious.

So i did a lot of reading.

I told you guys about the first few books. Since then:

The Book Of Dust-- Philip Pullman

This is a prequel to the Dark Materials. It features another protag, a boy this time. It was a quick read, more of a real adventure story i thought. Many of the same people in it, and Lyra and her daemon as babies. It was fun to read, I think I finished it in two nights. It felt less deeply symbolic to me, although i am sure that someone with more training would see many references that I missed. There was a great big flood.

Like everyone who read these books, I am enchanted by the idea of the daemon and badly want my own.

A Thousand Naked Strangers--Kevin Hazzard

Many years back I thought i would go into emergency medicine. I trained as an EMT. I was completely qualified to work in Connecticut, and then was sidelined by a complicated pregnancy. After that, to my vast relief there was an actual baby and I never went back to work.

That is fine, but i do like to read about the experiences I might have had. This book was a collection of memories of a man who was a paramedic in Atlanta in the 1990's. He describes his experiences with the ambulance, with different partners, with the seemingly endless people who needed his help. The book moves forward in time, so we come along as he grows more confident and capable.

Atlanta during these years went through tremendous upheaval. There was a real estate boom and, for a time, job growth to rival anywhere in the world. Atlanta in the 90's was not just hot, it was cool. Of course the wave did not lift everyone. The waves never do. And then the crash came. Jobs gone, homes foreclosed, hopes gone, health insurance gone, make-do run out. These things are relevant to an ambulance crew.

I like the book, and any book about medicine, no matter how old, remains fresh. The people who set out to fix others seem to me to be the same across centuries, decades are nothing.

Boy--Roald Dahl

I had never read anything he wrote for adults. In fact the writing is almost as childishly direct as that in Matilda. But this is not a kids book, or not really. Retrospective looks at childhood are mostly wasted on kids. He looks back on the confusion felt by an intelligent child surrounded by the weird inflexible rules of adults. Some rules are stated up front, some you only learn after you have broken them. Because he lives in the 1920's he gets beaten a lot. It is horrible to read about. There is also a scene where he has his adenoids out at the kitchen table, sitting up, wide awake. There is also lovely boating in Norway.

This is one of those books of long ago, where everyone is sort of improbably good at everything. You wonder to yourself, did everyone back then really know how to sew themselves an evening dress, and build an ocean-going raft, and you feel bad about your own skills. (Not that he did those particular things, but you know what I mean,) but I think that they actually could, and did. I tell myself we have other good qualities, but I wonder...

So December has run out, and the old year is done, pretty much. Daughter has gone to rural Pennsylvania to visit friends. Rest of us will be quiet at home this weekend. None of us will be unwise enough to go anywhere near Manhattan. (I have a friend who went, when she first moved here, to Times Square. She got wedged in the crowd for 5 hours. Once you are there they will not let you leave. Some guy pissed on her leg.)

See you all on the other side.

Dec Books number one

I got a late start with my reading in December. I was busy with the dailiness of things-- I find that I read a whole lot more articles and news stories than ever before, now that I can get them online. And more widely too. How my journalist parents would have loved this online news world!

But I did get a book read in the last two days-- I have mixed feelings about it. I read Tom Eubanks 'Ghosts of St Vincent's'

St Vincent's is a famous hospital that used to be in Greenwich Village. It was founded in the 1840s to deal with the needs of a rapidly expanding city, in the days before anyone knew any way to deal with epidemic disease. New York was having a cholera epidemic.

The hospital took in the poor as well as the wealthy, before the days of insurance. It treated many famous New York people over the years. It was scrappy, gritty, practical. But mostly St Vincent's was ground zero for the emergence of AIDS in the 1980s.

St Vincent's was demolished in recent years to make room for luxury apartments. The land is too valuable for a charity hospital now.

So I picked up this book, thinking it would be a sort of story of the hospital itself. I thought the 'ghosts' would be the patients or the doctors or something. There was a little of that. It had little interjected chapters like that. But mostly it was a memoir of Eubanks himself, of his living through the 70's and 80's as a young gay man in New York. The 'ghosts' are the memories of the friends he has lost, the days that are gone, the frantic joy of being young, and how it all flew apart.

And of course it is the story of the hospital too. Where so many went and did not return. Where Eubanks himself went, and came home again. He is in middle age now, and has seen the city transform completely.

The book was not what I expected. But I read on, moved, saddened. The writing is beautiful, but not intrusive. it is not the kind of book where you stop and pace the room because a particular phrase makes your bones sing. It is the kind of book where you see it as you go, forgetting yourself, waking with a bump when the world intrudes.

I read the whole thing in two days. you guys might like to read it too.

lj trouble

I cannot get into lj on my new laptop. I went to sign in and it said that my ip address was 'temporarily banned.' Has this ever happened to any of you? Luckily I was still signed in here-- on the desktop. Son says it it is probably not forever and not anything to do with me. Still feels odd.

Just got the next two books I hope to read. Will tell you guys about them soon! We have snow on the ground here now, not too much, but enough to make everything look different. The city has given us a new tree for in front of our building. They come around and plant them in the night, you wake up and there they are. it has red berries. No leaves of course.

I was lucky enough to get a stand-mixer for early Christmas. Last night I made a pie crust with it in about 1/5 the time it usually takes me, and with considerably less mess. We had a giant sausage and cabbage pie for supper. Was very good, and I think the crust was actually the best part. My mother told me that when she was little her grandfather said his grandmother made pies that could be thrown intact down a mine shaft. It was almost that kind.

Anyway, I hope this reaches you all, and that some poor overworked NSA fellow is not forced to read about my pies...Sleep well internets.

November Book 3,

The third November book was the last one. I did not read much in November. It was Prairie Fire by Caroline Fraser.

The book is an examination of the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and her daughter Rose Wilder Lane. Together they wrote the Little House on the Prairie series. LW did most of the writing, and RL did most of the edits. That much we know.

After that things get-- cloudy.

The books are for kids. They were expurgated. They were written in the depression years when LW herself needed money. By that time the prairie was in the middle of the dustbowl. It was drying up and blowing away. There was a fierce nostalgia for the days of the 'open prairie,' and the settlement of 'a land with nobody on it.'

Only, of course, of course, it was never that.

Laura's father, Charles Ingalls, made use of the Homestead Act to build his first house on the Osage diminished reserve. This was land technically owned by the Osage people. The Osage were in the process of being pushed out.

As a book for kids, she touches on that only glancingly. And it is fine if a kids book is only about happy memories. Much of LW's life was grinding poverty and fear, and hard work, and walking next to a covered wagon in a long skirt and bare feet. She lived her early life in a sod hut which leaked rain and snow. She froze in winter and worked in the fields in summer. Her life was not pretty. I understand that LW did not really want to talk about real reality of infant death, and lice, and hunger, and fear, and fire, and illness and locusts, and shame, and running away in the night because you could not pay your debts. Child Laura lived through all of that. She turned all that into books that made people all over the world happy. And her daughter seems to have been a quite gifted editor, (which is another skill entirely, and one which I respect.)

What bothers me, and what bothered Fraser, I think, is that LW and more especially RL had a real life devotion to the cult of American self sufficiency. In the depth of the depression, and the dust bowl, and later during WWII, they opposed any kind of government intervention. They railed against 'handouts,' social programs of any kind.

Laura, who should have known better, reframed her life as a success achieved alone-- her family against a hard world. Not so. Her family could not, did not do it alone. Nobody did. The Ingalls family had bank loans, land-grants, Indian land that they took without asking, and the kindness of neighbors, and utter strangers. There was one time when her teenage neighbor Almonzo walked through a life threatening blizzard with another boy to get food for their starving town of De Smet. (Laura did go on to marry Almonzo, and live with him for like 60 years, so that does show good sense.)

Through the thirties and forties their private letters and journals show a cultish devotion to Ayn Rand and bootstrapism. This while they both became rich and well known and acclaimed. This while the dust came and the prairie starved, and they read the papers, and they knew it. It hurts to read. They also quite liked Mussolini.

So, in the end, who is the fictional Laura? How does she relate to the real one? I don't think the events in the books were made up-- nobody says that. She just does not tell the whole truth. But what writer does? Does the real Laura owe us some kind of truth? Does she have to be a nice person to make a story about a nice family, or the whole deal is off?

What honor do we as readers owe to the actual Ingalls family, who crossed the prairie, and really did have a fiddle and a dog named Jack, and a Laura with brown hair, and little blond Mary who went blind... At 8 years old Laura was as tough as a little girl can be, and she squatted barefoot around a fire at night in her bare feet, and she probably had internal parasites, and she loved her parents, and she was already thinking like a writer. She was not an objectivist yet.

More books. thoughts, frustrations

So, I am going to try to copy this to the Dreamwidth site too. It should be easy enough. I feel dubious abnout DW. I know everyone has decamped to over there-- or decamped completely. I did not recognize anyone at a brief glance tonight, but it appears to be hopping with new people. New Hornblower people, even. That is great. I do still have the urge to write about them. They make me happy--when they don't make me sad, if you know what I mean.

Son set the desktop up for me today in a better way. We had reduced our furniture in anticipation of me getting a laptop. But laptop is delayed. Also the battery on my phone died, so it is useful tonight as a very small doorstop, or a rockish thing to heave in frustration...

White sky today, all day, and the temp dropping. Snow tomorrow, not much predicted but enough to make everything clean and silent for just a moment. I love when that happens. Clean and silent is so brief and rare here.

Let me tell you guys about the second November book. I was so taken by The War Nerd Iliad. I moved on to Achilles in Vietnam by John Shay.

I wanted to think about the story that so many men carried into war. What they expected, what they found, and maybe to try to get some grip on what they carried back. Some translations of the Iliad have it all prettied up. (Or the language of the time feels fancy, and insulates us from the actual violence of it all.) My translation claimed not to be doing this. It was written in modern words, earthy words. Words like: teeth, blood, hide, river, dust... It certainly felt immediate to me. Even so, a second book that drags you to the modern world, to a historical time, makes it all so much more real.

This second book book talked about some really hard stuff. Uncomfortable to read. About trauma, and honor, and what happens when things go really really askew.

One of the points the second book made is that much of the trouble in the Iliad came from the betrayal of what the officer-soldiers believed to be honorable behavior. (For example: Stealing women from each other, that each had stolen for himself...) The fact that their behavior was off the charts awful by our standards is not the point. Achilles in Vietnam posits that the men in the Iliad were traumatized firstly by the subversion of the honorable behavior that they expected in war. This set them up to be further unhinged by the violence that came later. It compares this to events in Vietnam, as desribed by vets who remember them. The comparison seems apt.

Again, I want to say, the book is a hard read. Go, if you go, with caution.

Long ago wars get sanitized. The pain seems remote. Taken together these books form an antidote.