The January Online Book Choice Is:

Dubliners by James Joyce


‘Most people considered Lenehan a leech but, in spite of this reputation, his adroitness and eloquence had always prevented his friends from forming any general policy against him. He had a brave manner of coming up to a party of them in a bar and of holding himself nimbly at the borders until he was included in a round.’

Dubliners is hard, gritty, and real. There is no tidy finish to each story. Every character plays his part for good or bad. Joyce called these stories epiphanies and he was certainly influenced by the Catholic concept of epiphany. Some are failed, but some offer a glimpse of hope, and a chance for renewal. These are wretched characters, desperate, disenchanted, or suffering from an abuse, inflicted on them by others or by themselves. Though the characters in each story are separate, they move together in the same time and space of Dublin.

‘He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense … He lived his spiritual life without any communion with others, visiting his relatives at Christmas and escorting them to the cemetery when they died … his life rolled out evenly—an adventureless tale.’

The writing is luminous:

‘As she was naturally pale and unbending in manner she made few friends at school. When she came to the age of marriage she was sent out to many houses, where her playing and ivory manners were much admired. She sat amid the chilly circle of her accomplishments, waiting for some suitor to brave it and offer her a brilliant life …’

January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany.

The December Online Book Choice Is:

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

screen-shot-2016-11-30-at-8-18-27-pm

Paul Kalanithi was a neurosurgeon with a bright future who was diagnosed with cancer while still in residency. How does a surgeon keep working once such a bleak diagnosis has been made? All the time and training and effort were now placed on a balance scale with family, and writing, his other passion. It became a time of doubt. And of determining what was important.

‘I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.’

Paul comes to terms with the loss of a life before it’s lived, and subsequently loss from death. He asks the central question Is There Meaning to Life? Scientifically? And what about philosophically? What does it mean to have lived a worthwhile life? Is there meaning in a life lived intensely but also in a life lived without distinction? None of us has much time.

‘That morning, I made a decision: I would push myself to return to the OR. Why? Because I could. Because that’s who I was. Because I would have to learn to live in a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.’

Paul Kalanithi raged against the dying of the light. He died in March 2015 from lung cancer.

The November Online Book Choice Is:

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

screen-shot-2016-11-05-at-10-52-38-pm

This book feels like Faulkner and for good reason. Anderson was mentor to the young writer in the mid 1920s, and also to Hemingway and Steinbeck, among others. Thomas Wolfe credits Anderson as being the ‘only man who ever taught me anything.’ His book can be considered the first Lost Generation novel, and that would have a huge influence on these young writers. It is worth reading for that reason alone.

The book is a book of stories that read like vignettes in a play. Anderson plays on this by announcing his intent:

‘Alice’s step-father was a carriage painter, and given to drink. His story is an odd one. It will be worth telling some day’
and
‘The story of Louise Bentley, who became Mrs. John Hardy and lived with her husband in a brick house on Elm Street in Winesburg, is a story of misunderstanding’
and
‘The story of Wing Biddlebaum is a story of hands.’

The town of Winesburg, its characteristics, and the daily life of the townspeople, is the common thread in each story. Each story is unique and carries its own weight but is tied to the others. Here is some lovely writing:

‘The story of Doctor Reefy and his courtship of the tall dark girl who became his wife and left her money to him is a very curious story. It is delicious, like the twisted little apples that grow in the orchards of Winesburg. In the fall one walks in the orchards and the ground is hard with frost underfoot. On the trees are only a few gnarled apples that the pickers have rejected. They look like the knuckles of Doctor Reefy’s hands. One nibbles at them and they are delicious. Into a little round place at the side of the apple has been gathered all of its sweetness. One runs from tree to tree over the frosted ground picking the gnarled, twisted apples and filling his pockets with them. Only the few know the sweetness of the twisted apples.’

Sherwood Anderson died in 1941.

The October Online Book Choice Is:

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

screen-shot-2016-10-01-at-4-54-23-pm

This book is a letter from an aged father to his young son. The effect it has is quiet, like a sermon. The book follows the trail of the Ames Family, from grandfather to father to son to grandson. 3 of the 4 are preachers, and each has a different religious direction, for themselves and their flocks. The spirit moves each one differently.

One son to the grandfather of the story is an atheist, a source of disappointment and disbelief. But the ministerial son still feels love for his brother, despite his father’s judgment.

‘My father asked him to say grace. Edward cleared his throat and replied, “I am afraid I could not do that in good conscience, sir,” and the color drained out of my father’s face. I knew there had been letters I was not given to read, and there had been somber words between my parents. So this was the dreaded confirmations of their fears. My father said, “You have lived under this roof. You know the customs of your family. You might show some respect for them.” And Edward replied, and this was very wrong of him, “When I was a child, I thought as a child. Now that I am become a man, I have put away childish things.” My father left the table, my mother sat still in her chair with tears streaming down her face, and Edward passed me the potatoes. I had no idea what was expected of me, so I took some.’

The son’s preoccupation with aging and dying can seem despondent, but it is insightful. There is hope in it.

‘I feel sometimes as if I were a child who opens its eyes on the world once and sees amazing things it will never know any names for and then has to close its eyes again. I know this is all mere apparition compared to what awaits us, but it is only lovelier for that. There is a human beauty in it. And I can’t believe that, when we have all changed and put on incorruptibility, we will forget our fantastic condition of mortality and impermanence, the great bright dream of procreating and perishing that meant the whole world to us. In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.’

Marilynne Robinson was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Gilead in 2005.

The September Online Book Choice Is:

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Screen Shot 2016-09-04 at 6.09.34 PM
‘Black beauty was never celebrated in movies, in television, or in textbooks I’d seen as a child, Everyone of any import, from Jesus to George Washington, was white … History books spoke of black people only as sentimental ‘firsts’ — first black five-star general, first black congressman, first black mayor — always presented in the bemused manner of a category of Trivial Pursuit.’

This book is relevant and relentless. A letter to his son, Coates explores the question of what and how it means to be black in America, and more importantly, how being black has changed since emancipation. How does one protect oneself if they are black? Why does being black mean adding a layer of defense (and deference)? And how does one explain that to a child?

Coates’ most grievous example is when a white woman shoves his son. Immediately, he rises to his son’s defense with angry words, and immediately after that a group of white people gang up on him, threatening to have him arrested and thrown in jail.

‘More than any shame I feel about my own actual violence, my greatest regret was that in seeking to defend you I was, in fact, endangering you.’

The revolution has been moving glacially for the last 150 years, and every once in a while there is an outburst and a push for democracy. I used to think that only generational die-off would bring about a change in attitude, but now I think that once we all accept the dirty underseam of our country, that’s when change will happen. Maybe this time it’s really starting.

The August Online Book Choice Is:

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Screen Shot 2016-08-02 at 7.40.46 PM

For this small classic, Steinbeck based his hero ‘Doc’ on the life and work of marine biologist Ed Ricketts. Besides detailing the work of marine sample collecting, the book includes all the interactions and connections with the locals of Cannery Row. A small town where everybody knows everybody else.

‘Early morning is a time of magic in Cannery Row. In the gray time after the light has come and before the sun has risen, the Row seems to hang suspended out of time in a silvery light. The street lights go out, and the weeds are a brilliant green. The corrugated iron of the canneries glows with the pearly lucence of platinum or old pewter. No automobiles are running then. The street is silent of progress and business. And the rush and drag of the waves can be heard as they splash in among the piles of the canneries. It is a time of great peace, a deserted time, a little era of rest.’

Doc is everyman’s hero, forbearing to his friends, and thoughtful:

‘It has always seemed strange to me, said Doc, the things we admire in men, kindness and generosity, openness, honesty, understanding and feeling are the concomitants of failure in our system. And those traits we detest, sharpness, greed, acquisitiveness, meanness, egotism, self-interest are the traits of success. And while men admire the quality of the first, they love the produce of the second.’

Steinbeck and Ricketts sailed into the Gulf of California in 1940 to analyze the perils of dredging and overfishing. They were both (but especially Ricketts) environmentally aware of the devastation that was occurring to the water’s ecology. And they were decades before their time. Ricketts had documented the ecology of the intertidal pools in his 1939 book Between Pacific Tides, which is still used today by students of marine biology.

Steinbeck wrote his Log from the Sea of Cortez about his trip with Ricketts. I include the following quote from this book because of its simple elegance:

‘Our own interest lay in relationships of animal to animal. If one observes in this relational sense, it seems apparent that species are only commas in a sentence, that each species is at once the point and the base of a pyramid, that all life is relational to the point where an Einsteinian relativity seems to emerge. And then not only the meaning but the feeling about species grows misty. One merges into another, groups melt into ecological groups until the time when what we know as life meets and enters what we think of as non-life: barnacle and rock, rock and earth, earth and tree, tree and rain and air. And the units nestle into the whole and are inseparable from it. Then one can come back to the microscope and the tide pool and the aquarium. But the little animals are found to be changed, no longer set apart and alone. And it is a strange thing that most of the feeling we call religious, most of the mystical outcrying which is one of the most prized and used and desired reactions of our species, is really the understanding and the attempt to say that man is related to the whole thing, related inextricably to all reality, known and unknowable. This is a simple thing to say, but the profound feeling of it made a Jesus, a St. Augustine, a St. Francis, a Roger Bacon, a Charles Darwin, and an Einstein. Each of them in his own tempo and with his own voice discovered and reaffirmed with astonishment  the knowledge that all things are one thing and that one thing is all things – plankton, a shimmering phosphorescence on the sea and the spinning planets and an expanding universe, all bound together by the elastic string of time. It is advisable to look from the tide pool to the stars and then back to the tide pool again.’

The U.S. Congress instigated the Coastal Zone Management Act in 1972 to address the problems of dredging and and to protect and preserve our coastlines and their ecological habitats.

The July Online Book Choice Is:

Night by Elie Wiesel

Screen Shot 2016-07-02 at 9.41.29 PM

Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.

Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.

Elie Wiesel won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. Link here to his Nobel acceptance speech.

The June Online Book Choice Is:

The Living by Annie Dillard

Screen Shot 2016-06-04 at 7.59.41 AM
Annie Dillard wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, winning the Pulitzer in 1975, and worthy of a read.

This book about intertwined families and communities was written in 1992. The book follows the 19th century settling by whites in Washington. It is a hard existence, hard to get a toe hold, but community, no matter what tribe you’re from, is ready to help.

It reminded me of Faulkner, or Garcia Marquez, particularly with her treatment of time. It is epic in nature, and written fully. This, describing the northern coastline of Washington state:

‘This high, precarious latitude, and its snowy peaks visible from everywhere on the farm, and its heavy timber and blue light, overwhelmed Green Randall. The plants by the roadside bore white, smooth berries, or pink hairy ones, or thorned leaves or glossy ones, and looked, among the ferns and moss, like trial plants of the beginning world … Here in this extravagant country, here on this buckling edge of the world, he was sensible already of the days’ shortening, and the winter darkness bearing down.’

And, what always draws me to a writer, a touching on death. It’s always good to have the reminder that our days are numbered:

‘Death was ready to take people, of any size, always, and so was the broad earth ready to receive them. A child’s death was a heartbreak — but it was no outrage, no freak, nothing not in the contract, and not really early, just soon.’

Annie Dillard is a former writing professor.

The May Online Book Choice Is:

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 12.37.34 PM
These ten letters are a compilation of Rilke’s responses to a young student who wanted advice; specifically whether his poetry was good enough to seriously consider making it a career.

Rilke’s responses are moving, mostly because he was motivated to help the student. Rilke had unsuccessfully attended the same military school that the student was currently attending. Rilke’s time at the academy was a devastating experience. He was abused physically and emotionally by his peers. He was not soldier strong and his artistic side was constantly being beaten down. He finally dropped out when he was 15 and then concentrated on becoming a poet and writer. He was just beginning to become popularly known when the student wrote to him.

‘Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create  … The point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.’

This speaks to the pain that Rilke felt:

‘And if there is one thing more that I must say to you, it is this: Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.’

I include a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke:

I Am Much Too Alone in This World, Yet Not Alone

I am much too alone in this world, yet not alone
enough
to truly consecrate the hour.
I am much too small in this world, yet not small
enough
to be to you just object and thing,
dark and smart.
I want my free will and want it accompanying
the path which leads to action;
and want during times that beg questions,
where something is up,
to be among those in the know,
or else be alone.

I want to mirror your image to its fullest perfection,
never be blind or too old
to uphold your weighty wavering reflection.
I want to unfold.
Nowhere I wish to stay crooked, bent;
for there I would be dishonest, untrue.
I want my conscience to be
true before you;
want to describe myself like a picture I observed
for a long time, one close up,
like a new word I learned and embraced,
like the everday jug,
like my mother’s face,
like a ship that carried me along
through the deadliest storm.

The April Online Book Choice Is:

How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher

how to cook a wolf cover

This is a book of economy, written during the midst of World War II, and gives helpful advice (and recipes) to cooks who are dealing with the slimness of their larders, and the inconsistencies of public utilities, not to mention the expense of grocery purchasing, due to war time rationing.

With chapter titles such as How to Boil Water, How to be Cheerful through Starving, How Not to Be an Earthworm, Fisher puts a neat spin on how the home cook can vary and expand a war-time diet. This, regarding chowder:

‘There is another well-worn controversy among chowder-lovers as to which is correct, the kind made with milk or the kind made with tomato and water. Long ago it may have been dependent on transportation and climate and so forth, so that in the winter when the cow was still fresh there was milk, and in the summer when the tomatoes were plump and heavy they were used…
Who knows? Furthermore, who cares? You should eat according to your own tastes, as much as possible, and, if you want to make a chowder with milk and tomato, and crackers and potatoes, do it, if the result pleases you…’

And every so often, Fisher brings her typical touch of her love affair with gastronomy. This remembrance, from her time in Switzerland:

‘One (recipe) I remember that we used to make, never earlier than two and never later than four in the morning, in a strange modernistic electric kitchen on the wine terraces between Lausanne and Montreux. We put cream and Worcestershire sauce into little casseroles, and heated them into bubbling. Then we broke eggs into them, turned off the current, and waited until they looked done, while we stood around drinking champagne with circles under our eyes and Viennese music in our heads. Then we ate the eggs with spoons, and went to bed.’

Here is Fisher’s splurge of a recipe for:

Scrambled Eggs

8 good fresh eggs
Half a pint rich cream…or more
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Grated cheese, herbs, whatnot, if desired

Break eggs gently into cold iron skillet. Pour cream in, and stir quietly until the whole is blended, but no more. Never beat or whip. Heat very slowly, stirring from the middle bottom in large curds, as seldom as possible. Never let bubble. Add seasoning at the last stir or two.
This takes perhaps a half hour. It cannot be hurried.
Serve on toast, when it is barely firm.

——

And the one vegetable that might save us all:

‘It is easy to think of potatoes, and fortunately for men who have not much money it is easy to think of them with a certain safety. Potatoes are one of the last things to disappear, in times of war, which is probably why they should not be forgotten in times of peace.’

Quick Potato Soup

1/4 pound good butter
4 large potatoes
4 large onions
2 quarts whole milk
Salt, pepper, minced parsley if agreeable

Melt the butter in large kettle, or in fireproof casserole in which the soup can be served. Grate the clean potatoes into it. (I like to leave them unpeeled, but the soup is not so pretty unless chopped fresh herbs, added at the last, change its natural whiteness enough to hide the bits of brown skin.) Grate the peeled onions into it, or slice them very thin. Heat the mixture to bubble-point, stirring well. Then reduce the heat, and cover closely for about ten minutes or until the vegetables are tender but not mushy, shaking the pot now and then to prevent sticking. Add more butter (or chicken fat) if it seems wise. Heat the milk to boiling point but not beyond, add slowly to the pot, season, and serve.

——

Though I got the shudders when Fisher mentioned cooking with canned cream of mushroom soup (too many flashbacks to the church fundraiser cookbook recipes), war time cooks didn’t have a lot of options. You had to do what you had to do, with what you had. Fresh food was not much of an option, unless you got it from your own back yard garden, be it through vegetables and/or small livestock. A recipe for Tomato Soup Cake? Hunger will change anyone’s opinions about any food oddity.

‘But in each one of them there is a basic thoughtfulness, a searching for the kernel in the nut, the bite in honest bread, the slow savor in a baked wished-for apple. It is this thoughtfulness that we must hold to, in peace or war, if we may continue to eat to live.’

With a hat off to all the churches, schools, and libraries that have published a fundraiser cookbook, here is a recipe from the Arthur Public Library’s Centennial Cookbook, 2001:

Pour-a-Pizza

1 pkg. instant beef bouillon per serving
1 c. tomato juice per serving

Empty the bouillon into each cup. Add the spice or spices of your choice (red pepper, oregano, garlic salt). Heat the tomato juice to boiling; pour into each cup with the bouillon. Stir and serve.