Walden

Thoreau’s key to happiness was through simplicity. He went to the woods (to live deliberately) and left us with this touchstone of wisdom about what we should strive for, especially as the world gets faster and more complex. He advocates the quiet life of living alone in nature, which plucks at my heartstrings like a drunk banjo player. He is rich not in money, but in sunny hours and summer days.
Economy
In this section, Thoreau details how he was able to conduct his grand experiment, how much he spent on the construction of his house in the woods near Walden Pond. Most of this part is spent deriding the nature of “work”, how man has no time to be anything but a machine. If men were to live more simply, they could exist by working a few weeks out of the year and studying the remainder, or pursuing their passions.

Men labor under a mistake. The better part of the man is soon ploughed into the soil for compost. By a seeming fate, commonly called necessity, they are employed, as it says in an old book, laying up treasures which moths and rust will corrupt and thieves break through and steal. It is a fool’s life…

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation… A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind.

The greater part of what my neighbors call good I believe in my soul to be bad, and if I repent of any thing, it is very likely to be my good behavior. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?

I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and I threw them out the window in disgust. How, then, could I have a furnished house? I would rather sit in the open air, for no dust gathers on the grass, unless where man has broken ground.

Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, and end which it was already but too easy to arrive at… We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate…. As if the main object were to talk fast and not to talk sensibly.

This spending of the best part of one’s life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it, reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.

Many are concerned about the monuments of the West and the East, -to know who built them. For my part, I should like to know who in those days did not build them, – who were above such trifling.

In short, I am convinced, both by faith and experience, that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime, if we will live simply and wisely; as the pursuits of the simpler nations are still the sports of the more artificial. It is not necessary that a man should earn his living by the sweat of his brow, unless he sweats easier than I do.

… I would have each one be very careful to find out and pursue his own way… The youth may build or plant or sail, only let him not be hindered from doing that which he tells me he would like to do. It is by a mathematical point only that we are wise, as the sailor or the fugitive slave keeps the polestar in his eye; but that is sufficient guidance for all our life. We may not arrive at our port within a calculable period, but we would preserve the true course.

Where I Lived, and What I Lived For
This is where Thoreau ramps up the poetry, going to the woods to live deliberately, etc. He compliments himself on remaining unencumbered from owning a farm, or settling down.

I have frequently seen a poet withdraw, having enjoyed the most valuable part of a farm, while the crusty farmer supposed that he had got a few wild apples only. Why, the owner does not know it for many years when a poet has put his farm in rhyme, the most admirable kind of invisible fence, has fairly impounded it, milked it, skimmed it, and got all the cream, and left the farmer only the skimmed milk.

This in particular was of interest to my teenage self, bearing markings from decades ago:

As long as possible live free and uncommitted.

There was something cosmical about (the morning); a standing advertisement, till forbidden, of the everlasting vigor and fertility of the world. The morning, which is the most memorable season of the day, is the awakening hour. Then there is least somnolence in us; and for an hour, at least, some part of us awakes which slumbers all the rest of the day and night.

“All intelligences awake with the morning.” Poetry and art… date from such an hour. All poets and heroes, like Memnon, are the children of Aurora, and emit their music at sunrise. To him whose elastic and vigorous though keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of mean. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me… The millions are awake enough for physical labor; but only one in a million is awake enough for effective intellectual exertion, only one in a hundred millions to a poetic or divine life. To be awake is to be alive. I have never yet met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?

It is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. to affect teh quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Reading
How can I not trip over myself in haste to read this chapter? Thoreau is a classics snob, encouraging you to read Homer or Aeschylus in Greek (one of my notes from a teenaged reading of this “What is so great about Homer?”).

To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem.It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object.

Books are the treasured wealth of the world and the fit inheritance of generations and nations…. That age will be rich indeed when those relics which we call Classics… shall have further accumulated with Homers and Dantes and Shakespeares, and all the centuries to come shall have successively deposited their trophies in the forum of the world. By such a pile we may hope to scale heaven at last.

…of reading as a noble intellectual exercise they know little or nothing; yet this only is reading, in a high sense, not that which lulls us as a luxury and suffers the nobler faculties to sleep the while, but what we have to stand on tiptoe to read and devote our most alert and wakeful hours to.

On unchallenging writing:

The result is a dullness of sight, a stagnation of the vital circulations, and a general deliquium and sloughing off of all the intellectual faculties.

Sounds
He continues the reading theme in this section, but focuses on the birds and lack of other sounds except nature.

Sometimes, in a summer morning, having taken my accustomed bath, I sat in my sunny doorway from sunrise till noon, rapt in a revery, amidst the pines and hickories and sumachs, in undisturbed solitude and stillness, while the birds sang around or flitted noiseless through the house, until by the sun falling in at my west window, or the noise of some traveler’s wagon on the distant highway, I was reminded of the lapse of time. I grew in those seasons like corn in the night, and they were far better than any work of the hands would have been.

Solitude
My pen was quivering with anticipation, ready to highlight the crap out of this section. Turns out my younger self had already attacked a lot of the good bits, starred even. It starts out strongly:

This is a delicious evening, when the whole body is one sense, and imbibes delight through every pore.

He warms up to some lovely passages:

I find it wholesome to be alone the greater part of the time. To be in company, even with the best, is soon wearisome and dissipating. I love to be alone. I never found the companion that was so companionable as solitude. We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers. A man thinking or working is always alone, let him be where he will. Solitude is not measured by the miles of space that intervene between a man and his fellows. The really diligent student in one of the crowded hives of Cambridge College is as solitary as a dervis in the desert.

Society is commonly too cheap. We meet at very short intervals, not having had time to acquire any new value for each other. We meet at meals three times a day, and give each other a new taste of that old musty cheese that we are.

Visitors
Thoreau wants to be sure you know he loves good company, too.

One inconvenience I sometimes experienced in so small a house, the difficulty of getting to a sufficient distance from my guest when we began to utter the big thoughts in big words. You want room for your thoughts to get into sailing trim and run a course or two before they make their port.

Much much more, but I grow weary at transcription, having marked up most of the book as a teenager and still appreciating the marks decades later. Only that day dawns to which we are awake. There is more day to dawn. The sun is but a morning star.

Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef

A chef with writing talent is a welcome combination. Hamilton describes the large boisterous family she grew up in, roasting goats for big parties, her father a set designer and with access to costumes, her mother a retired ballerina who leaves her father and the family crumbles when Gabriella is not yet a teenager. She gets jobs in restaurants, becomes a catering chef, works at a girls camp, has relationships with ladies, lives in NYC, marries an Italian man and falls in love with his family.
A solid beach read, the first and last sections are beautifully written, with a jarring contrast as soon as her family disintegrates.

Ninety-two in the Shade

This book has been on my mind lately, and I’ve been searching every bookstore for a copy to reread. I was idly eyeing my bookshelf in the library and noticed that I already have a copy of it, the Penguin Classics 1981 reprint. McGuane dances with words, pokes you in the eye then scurries away into a cloud of muck.
Thomas Skelton has decided that the only work to keep him sane is as a fishing guide. Unfortunately, there’s not room enough on Key West for another guide, Nichol Dance and Faron Carter are already the experts who have cornered the market. Dance promises to kill Skelton if he goes through with his plan to guide. Carter and Dance team up to trick Skelton by having him guide the Rudleighs and they swoop in to take the couple home when Skelton wades off to capture (actually release) the fish. Skelton then burns Dance’s boat and then builds his own boat from scratch.
Skelton’s father has retreated from life to his mosquito netted hammock, watching football and muttering at the world. He roams around town in his sheet/toga, does some mushrooms with his son in the Blimp Works. Skelton’s grandfather is a powerful figure in town, having an affair with his secretary, trying to get his son to snap out of his stupor. Skelton’s girl, Miranda, is not a source of comfort; he walks in on her with another guy, she tells him to wait until she finishes then comes out to see him. In the end, Dance and Carter watch Skelton go out on his first guide trip and Dance’s boat won’t start so he borrows Carter’s boat to track down Skelton and shoot him through the heart.
After Bella (the secretary) has broken a glass by shrieking at it while getting mopped by her lover, Skelton’s grandfather:

Abruptly, she rose to her feet, weeping silently with pride, and flung herself into her ungrateful lover’s arms. She stood there a long time in a gradually enlarging puddle of suds; shards of crystal were scattered about the table. And somehow, the suds, the pail, the mop, and the crystal were “mute testimony” to a life of charisma and reversals, the tawdry and the magnifique: in short, the universal condition of total blandness decorated only here and there, like cheap raisin bread, with modern French philosophers in waterproofs.

Collection of Moby Dick covers

My favoritest bookstore on the planet, Green Apple, blogs about re-reading Moby Dick and includes a great selection of cover images of Moby over the years. I, too, read and re-read my trusty Penguin Classics edition of this. I also have a hardcover Modern Library edition that has been read a few times. The only problem with having more than one copy is consolidating your notes in once place.
I particularly like this Bantam Classics cover with eerily green sea hinting at the dangers that lurk beyond the horizon or under the murky sea.
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Re-read: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I loved this book two years ago and suggested it for book club, thus found myself devouring it again over a weekend.
This time around I picked up on a few things I’d missed before– Paloma’s choice of June 16 as her suicide date (Bloomsday). The mirroring of Paloma & Renee’s thoughts. And the supremely cheesy ending. It started to go off the rails for me when Renee breaks down about her sister’s death. This turns into her accepting the dinner invitation from Ozu, who tells her she is not her sister and sends her weeping from the sushi restaurant. The appearance of Jean Arthenes at the end is jarring for anyone who has not read her previous book. I am more jaded this go-round, still enjoying the warm bath of delightful prose but with a more critical eye.
Original review here.

Ulysses

“Did you hear my brain go snap?” It did, and I have broken through, completing my four month project to read Ulysses. I am working on something larger than a blog post to steep my thoughts about this epic work, so I’ll follow normal blog procedure to give you a bare bones summary and possibly some quotes.
Holy crap.
This was my third attempt. Once I made it past the pen-marks of previous attempts, I was a hiker in the dark forest without a trail, a climber without bolts. I had the companion book to steer me through weeks of delirium, but it provided a precarious hold. For the larger piece I’m working on, I jotted down page numbers of book pages I made notes on, ending up with five pages of page numbers to pore through later. I’m sure more scholarly readers would have hundreds of pages of numbers, but I was reading this for… fun.
A book in three parts, all taking place on June 16, 1904. The first book a short one, dedicated to Stephen Dedalus, scholar and teacher, living in a tower with Buck Mulligan and Haines. The second follows Leopold Bloom aka Poldy aka Henry Flower as he makes his way through a day in Dublin: Paddy Dignam’s funeral, fetching sausage for Molly’s breakfast (and the mail, with a letter from a woman he’s flirting with, and a letter to Molly from her lover), at the newspaper office, at a pub for lunch, at the National Library, to another pub, watching a woman at the beach, going to the hospital for a birth, visiting prostitutes. The third book begins with Bloom caring for a drunken Dedalus, taking him to a cab shelter for food, then home for some Epps cocoa in the kitchen, then Stephen was off into the night, Bloom to bed where he kisses Molly’s arse, falls asleep. Finally Molly’s song begins, forty-five pages containing only eight long run-on smutty sentences. This book has it all– plays, rhetorical questions, songs, religion, sex, Shakespeare, Dante, Melville…
I have five pages of book page numbers, so here are a few smatterings:

O, cheese it! Shut his blurry Dutch oven with a firm hand.

(With a nervous twitch of his head.) Did you hear my brain go snap? Pollysyllabax!

SHAKESPEARE (In dignified ventriloquy.) ‘Tis the loud laugh bespeaks the vacant mind.

I daresay this book is worth a re-read or twelve.
Previously:
Adventures in Reading Ulysses, Part 1
Adventures in Reading Ulysses, Part 2
Companion Book

Ulysses Annotated: Notes for James Joyce’s Ulysses

It was my third attempt to summit Ulysses, and this time I sought help. Tightening my belt, strolling up Columbus on St. Patrick’s Day, I dove into City Lights Books and cried uncle, asked for the companion book. And it was invaluable. My reading routine was to prop open this book underneath Ulysses with a dictionary close at hand, and a notebook to scribble notes. This book explains allusions, jokes, puns, slang, street names, the connection to the corresponding episodes in The Odyssey, translating French/Italian/Latin. My only beef was the number of times I’d get to a note and have to look back at a previous note for information, e.g. “18.736-37 *in old Madrid… love is sighing I am dying – See 11.733n”. There was a lot of flipping back and forth and back.

Pilgrimage to the End of the World: The Road to Santiago de Compostela

The author takes 2.5 months to travel a thousand miles from Le Puy, France to Santiago, Spain, via ancient pilgrim routes. Lucky for us, he boils down those months into a tiny 130 pages, still managing to convey the majesty, the silence, the intrepid blistering travelers. The first section debriefs the medieval pilgrimage experience, the second section his more elaborate and thoughtful piece, the third section photos along the way, and fourth section detailing How-To.
A friend mentioned this pilgrimage as something she and her husband were going to do in a week for an attempt the final leg of, spiking my curiosity because while the Machu Picchu hike has become trite, this pilgrimage remained unsung. Sights along the way look like this. I feel strongly that you’d need more than a week to get into the mood of a pilgrimage. Modern life can sometimes be put on hold, no?

In the course of this downshifting from modern to medieval speed, the pilgrimage acts like a mental sauna, sweating out the stress of daily life as you sit and watch the shadows of the clouds move slowly across the land, pass gradually over the hill, and silently cross over the stream, the cows, the low stone wall, and finallly, you. Your mind first stops listing the things you have to do next, then it quits going over what had been happening at work; soon you stop humming and whistling to yourself and, eventually, there’s a certain “white noise” and you begin to notice everything: the course of the sun, the phase of the moon, which way the water flows, where the wind is from, how the clouds are forming, and how deep the Milky Way looks from the balcony of your fifteenth-century refugio.

Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way

While immersed in the text, I realized that reading Proust turns one into a snob. There I was, shielding the sun from my eyes with Proust at the beach. Or here I stood, reading Proust while waiting to join a friend at an art opening. Or glance at the table beside my reading chair, where Proust was hidden under Ulysses, a dictionary, a volume of Shakespeare. One day when I was being particularly pretentious, a friend of mine asked me if I was reading Proust. Ouch.
As for the work itself, Swann’s Way is gorgeous. I made futile attempts to read this without a pen in my hand, nearly every page holding a glittering triumph of phrasing. Swann in Love is by far my most marked-up section.
***
Overture:
Proust explores early memories around waking up and going to sleep in bedrooms of his past. The tragedy of having to go to bed without a kiss or visit from his mother. The ruse of sending a note down to fetch his mother, her refusal, his waylaying her on the stairs when she is headed for bed, his father’s arbitrary decision to allow her to sleep the night with Proust, the bittersweetness of this moment, knowing it is a once in a lifetime offer. The taste of a madeline dipped in tea immediately transporting him back to his aunt’s bedroom in Combray.
Combray:
The family migrated to Combray each year around Easter and stayed for the summer. Aunt Leonie muttering to herself “must remember I haven’t slept a wink” as her claim to fame, lying in her sickbed, gossiping with her maid, Françoise, or the visitor E? whom she pitted against Françoise and vice versa. Méséglise way (or Swann’s way) vs. Guermantes way
Swann in Love:
* The Verdurin group: insular community who loathed “bores”
* Falling in love with a snippet of music
* Falling in love with Odette
* Geting cut from the Verdurins: Swann has become a “bore”. His rant upon dimissal, “I inhabit a plane so infinitely far above the sewers in which these filthy vermin sprawl and crawl and bawl their cheap obscentities, that I cannot possibly be spattered by the witticisms of a Verdurin!”
* Falling out of love with Odette, jealousy, then waning. Lots of rich material on the debilitating effects of jealousy.
Place-Names: The Name
The narrator is banished to play on the Champs-Élysées, but discovers solace in the company of Gilbertte Swann, with whom he falls in love. Not a particularly moving chapter of the book. He is under the watchful eye of Françoise, old family servant inherited from his aunt.