Absalom, Absalom!

It’s because she wants it told, he thought, so that people whom she will never see and whose names she will never hear and who have never heard her name nor seen her face will read it and know at last why God let us lose the war: that only through the blood of our men and the tears of our women could He slay this demon and efface his name and lineage from the earth.

—-William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

Mural outside of Sandwich Hag, The Cedars, Dallas, Texas

So, about a month ago my Difficult Reading Book Club started in on Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. We finished it up last week – it certainly makes the cut as a difficult book – but I made it through relatively unscathed.

And this week we started in on the second tome in our Faulkner journey – Absalom, Absalom!. I am now three chapters in. I had heard a lot of talk about how difficult a book it is – but after The Sound and the Fury I’m finding the second book quite a bit easier to read and understand. Now, there are sentences that run on for pages (although Ulysses by James Joyce has a 4,491 word sentence in a soliloquy, The Guinness Book of Records lists the longest proper sentence as one from Absalom, Absalom! at 1,287 words – I haven’t reached it yet), the story is frames within frames within frames, and the language (is wonderful) is difficult… For example I made a note of one phrase on page 53:

presbyterian effluvium of lugubrious and vindictive anticipation,

Ok… I know all those words… but I never thought of seeing them strung together in one place like that.

Oh. Seeing that phrase that I had highlighted reminded me of something. I bought a paperback copy of the book, plus a Kindle copy. I then discovered something I never knew about reading on a Kindle. I have been reading books on my Kindle for well over a decade – hundreds of books. During all this time I have been highlighting passages that I wanted to remember. Only this week did I discover that there is a web page:

https://read.amazon.com/notebook

That contains all the highlights (and notes) that I have made in all those books over all those years on all my devices. It’s pretty damn amazing. Looking through it is like going back in time. There are books in there I didn’t remember reading until I perused the feedback I input at the time – then it came rushing back.

I am now going through these highlights and hand copying the ones that still mean something to me into my commonplace book. Cool! Also a huge waste of time… but it is what it is.

Well… better go read. I’ve heard that chapter Four is a doozy.

The Benjy Section

Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting. They were coming toward where the flag was and I went along the fence. Luster was hunting in the grass by the flower bed. They took the flag out, and they were hitting. Then they put the flag back and they went to the table, and he hit and the other hit. Then they went on, and I went along the fence. Luster came away from the flower tree and we went along the fence and they stopped and we stopped and I looked through the fence while Luster was hunting in the grass.

—- William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury, opening paragraph (Benjy Section)

The Difficult Reading Book Club – a group I belong to (we have read Gravity’s Rainbow, 1Q84, The Brother’s Karamazov, and Foucault’s Pendulum) – is now one week into Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. This week I read the infamous Benjy Section – the first part of the novel. Tonight we had a Zoom meeting to discuss (we will be meeting in person starting next week).

This is one of the most difficult hunks of text to read and understand. It is written in raw stream-of-consciousness from the mind of a severely mentally disabled man on his thirty third birthday. Benjy – is completely unable to understand the passage of time and his disjointed thoughts jump back and forth over a thirty-year span. It is amazingly difficult to figure out what is going one – Benjy knows what he sees – but he doesn’t know why. The text gives no context – you have to figure it out.

For example, read the opening paragraph above. How long did it take for you to realize Benjy is watching a group play golf through a fence?

I had an advantage, I have read the book before. It was almost fifty years ago – I was a mere teen – and had no idea of what was going on. However, I did understand what the structure of The Benjy Section was and, with that leg up, I was able to take notes and figure out most, or some, or a lot of what was actually happening.

The rest of the book is not as confusing and I look forward to reading it to understand more of what was presented. When I finish, I’m going to go back and re-read The Benjy Section with the knowledge gained in the others – it should make more sense then.

Oh, and The Sound and the Fury isn’t difficult enough for The Difficult Reading Book Club on its own – we will immediately jump into Absalom, Absalom!.

Berg

“A man called Berg, who changed his name to Greb, came to a seaside town intending to kill his father.”

—-Berg, by Ann Quin, opening line

Clarence Street Art Collective, The Cedars, Dallas, Texas

Ok, a while back I put together a reading plan. Next up on the list, decided by the roll of the die, was Berg, by Ann Quin (I’m skipping the next Zola novel for a while). I started it a few days ago and stalled a bit – it’s a short novel, but dense and difficult.

But then I received notice that the Difficult Reading Book Club is starting back up and tomorrow, Wednesday will be our first get-together of the current round. In the past I have read with this group Gravity’s Rainbow, 1Q84, The Brother’s Karamazov, and Foucault’s Pendulum – difficult, but rewarding books all – I don’t know if I could have dug through all these alone. This time we are reading two books, both by William Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury and Absalom, Absalom! I read The Sound and the Fury in college – about all I remember is how hard is was to get through and/because its unique structure and language. So I’m excited to read it again – with my accumulated decades and the help of the other readers.

However, that put pressure on my reading of Berg. I thought about abandoning it, but I had a few hours this afternoon, so I shut myself up with my Kindle and knocked it off.

Berg is an interesting book – very well written – with a very unique and difficult voice. Is it a good book? It’s right on the edge. With a book as idiosyncratic as this one – to me the ultimate test if if you care, if you give a damn about the characters. Otherwise all the literary gymnastics are just showing off.

In this case, I guess I ended up caring. Nobody is likeable. Everybody is crazy. The author struggled with mental health – she had a breakdown when she finished the novel and needed extensive treatment before she published it – and, sadly, she eventually committed suicide by drowning herself in a setting terribly similar to the novel.

The novel is not very long – I should re-read it and probably will after we finish with Faulkner. It’s worth it if you are looking for an idiosyncratic voice in literature. It is the kind of thing you will like if you like that sort of thing.

One side note I found. There actually is a film version of Berg, called Killing Dad – starring Richard E Grant as the son, Denholm Elliott as the father, and Julie Walters as the mistress, Judith. I have no idea how they would make a movie out of the words on the page. I’m not sure if I want to see it – it may spoil the images I have in my noggin from the text. It is available for free on Tubi if I change my mind.

Fever Dream

“Strange can be quite normal. Strange can just be the phrase ‘That is not important’ as an answer for everything. But if your son never answered you that way before, then the fourth time you ask him why he’s not eating, or if he’s cold, or you send him to bed, and he answers, almost biting off the words as if he were still learning to talk, ‘That is not important’, I swear to you Amanda, your legs start to tremble.”
― Samanta Schweblin, Fever Dream

Mural (detail), Deep Ellum, Dallas, Texas

So, the next novel in line on my reading plan was Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. A very short novel, with few characters (though a unique take on point of view) I was able to read it in a day and a half.

It’s a horror story, with elements of the supernatural and environmental disaster in the forefront. It’s told as a conversation between a young boy (who is half someone else) and a dying woman – his summer-renting neighbor. The two of them, the woman’s young daughter, plus many other people, and most of the animals, in the area have been exposed to a toxin of unknown nature. The wealthy men of the neighborhood seem to be doing something that releases the toxin, but nobody knows for sure.

It’s a horrible illness – killing most in a few days and leaving the survivors disfigured and changed… somehow. A story told in an effective and interesting way about a mother’s worst nightmare.

But, I’m sorry, in the end the novel didn’t do much for me. I did read an English translation – and I could almost feel the subtlety of the original Spanish washed away off the edges of the paper. Spanish has words that English lacks, words for emotions and relationships that I may have been missing. The book held plenty of horror, dread, and mystery… is that enough? Does it need a payoff? A point? Even if it is short and only takes up a few precious hours of your life?

Probably not. Still, I wanted at least a bit more.

I see than Netflix has made a film out of this movie. I’m tempted… but I can’t see how this harrowing, yet thin, story would look in pixels and sound. I’ll probably watch it eventually, just not now.

OK, looking at the order I chose for my reading plan (chosen by the roll of the dice) – Is another Zola novel – The Debacle (the next-to-last Rougon Macquart novel)… but I’m not in the mood for another long novel… just yet. So it’s Berg, by Ann Quin next. Then on to Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World by Donald Antrim. A couple more shorter novels.

That’s the ticket.

Mobius Dick

Truth is hope. Hell is the place where all truth is abandoned.

—–Andrew Crumey, Mobius Dick

Kindle
Call Me Ishmael

I have been a fan of the little-known, but known, author Andrew Crumey. He mixes fiction with science, perversity with quantum physics – in a unique and, to me, entertaining and sometimes enlightening way. British, with a PhD in theoretical physics he looks at the world from a different point of view than your run-of-the-mill hack typist. I’ve read Pfitz (1995), D’Alembert’s Principle (1996), and Mr Mee (2000) in the distant past. If I had time I’d re-read them a bit, my memory is fading fast, but I do remember a lot of science, a little history, and a shitload of very unreliable narrators.

There was another book of his that I really wanted to read, if for no other reason than its genius title, Mobius Dick, published in 2004. I searched the bookstores (mostly used) for a copy and never came close. So finally I broke down and bought a Kindle version, put it on my reading plan, and rolled a die. It came up second, after Desperate Characters. Desperate Characters only took a day to read – so then I dug into Mobius Dick. Life intervened and it took a month, longer than I had planned – but today I finished.

I was not disappointed – the book was as complex and as odd as I had hoped. Though it was written almost two decades ago – it is of this time in that it is something of a multiverse oriented piece of fiction. A physics professor named John Ringer receives a mysterious text on his Q-phone that says, “Call me: H.” He has no idea who “H” is… maybe an old lover named Helen?

Chapters alternate between his story, historical episodes from various fictional books that include or involve historical characters such as: Robert Schumann, Erwin Schrödinger, Herman Melville, Thomas Mann, Goethe, Brahms, Nathaniel Hawthorn, Nietzsche, Jung and even Goebbels – to name a few. It’s great fun to track the relationships and the name dropping.

The over-arching plot is of a secretive group attempting to generate power from nothing using a giant vacuum tube and a careful arrangement of nickel-tantalum mirrors. This will also enable them to operate a quantum computer and develop instantaneous long-distance communication methods using quantum entanglement. The only fly in the ointment is John Ringer’s paper that implies that at the energies the thing will operate at – the quantum wave-function may not collapse – leading to multiple realities occurring. Schrödinger’s cat would be both dead and alive – forever.

Not good. Sort of a Moby Dick and the Multiverse of Madness… and the end of everything.

I know this includes many more spoilers than I like – but the book is complex and I wanted to give a flavor. I did have to take notes and do some research on some of the more obscure historical characters and verify everything – it all checked out.

At least in this universe.

So on to the next… let me see… Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin. So many books, so little time.

Desperate Characters

“A good novel begins with a small question and ends with a bigger one.”
― Paula Fox

Waco Downtown Farmer’s Market Waco, Texas

Ok, so I’m off working on my Reading Plan. On the fiction, novel side the first one up was Desperate Characters by Paula Fox.

It sometimes takes me as much as a month to dig through a big, tough novel. There are all the Zolas – plus with my Difficult Reading Book club there has been Gravity’s Rainbow, 1Q84, Brothers Karamazov… and others – all long, difficult (but worthwhile) slogs.

I read Desperate Characters in two days. Reading the book blind, I didn’t realize it was written in 1970 – assuming it was newer than that. It is set in upper-crust New York (the protagonist is a literary translator – her husband a successful attorney) during the time when New York was being overtaken by crime, racism, and filth (like it might be again – that’s why it felt so contemporary).

Sophie, the translator, opens her terrace to feed a stray cat and the feline attacks and bites her. During the bulk of the story Sophie struggles with the thought she might have rabies.

The novel is set in a small, walled-in world – with walled-in characters. The title comes from Thoreau’s Walden quote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I have been coming across that quote a lot lately… which is unfortunately not surprising.

One thing I want to do while I go through this reading plan is to hand write into my planner passages that resonate with me for one reason or another. I have always used my Kindle to highlight passages, store them digitally, but sitting down with a fountain pen and my precious dwindling supply of Tomoe River paper… gives them more meaning and imprints them on my fading gray matter.

I wrote down two quotes, one long one short. I’ll type them up here:

Desperate Characters, page 54

In this last year she had discovered that its discomforts, once interpreted, always meant the curtailment, or end of some pleasure. She could not eat and drink the way she once had. Inexorably, she was being invaded by elements that were both gross and risible. She had only recently realized that one was old for a long time

Page 75

There, she found two messages; one, written in chalk said: Kiss me someone‘ and the other, scratched with a key or a knife, said: Fuck everyone except Linda.

My Reading Plan – Fiction (and dice)

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.”
― Oscar Wilde

(click to enlarge) Book With Wings, Anselm Kiefer, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth

As I said the other day after I finished La Terre I wanted to evaluate my reading – set up a reading plan. I watched some YouTube videos on setting up a Reading Journal and on reading plans – and did some general web searches on the subject.

What I decided to do was to make some lists of books to read in several categories (I decided to stick, for now, to what’s on my Kindle – there are more books there than I could read in the few years still allocated to me) and then go from there. I chose six fiction novels that looked like the next six I wanted to read. I also started on lists for Self-Help (don’t judge) and for Writing categories. Next, I want to do lists of short story collections and general non-fiction. That should be a good start – I plan on having at least one current book from each category and I can pick and choose depending on my mood.

There is a reason I picked six fiction novels. I have been experimenting with dice... and I wanted to choose the order by roll of the die (six is better than eleven, the numbers from two die, because the odds of each number are the same and I didn’t want to mess around with ranking the books… maybe next time). So I went through my Kindle, listed out six that jumped out at me, and started to roll.

And, here we go:

1st book – Desperate Characters – Paula Fox – 152 pages

2nd book – Mobius Dick – Andrew Crummy – 320 pages

3rd book – Fever Dream – Samanta Schweblin – 183 pages

4th book – The Debacle (Nineteenth Rogon-Macquart novel) – Emile Zola – 592 pages

5th book – Berg – Ann Quin 168 pages

6th book – Elect Mr. Robinson for a Better World – Donald Antrim – 192 pages

You will notice a plethora of short, modern books on this list. I wanted a change from Zola… though The Debacle is on the list (almost done with the series).

And yesterday, I started in on Desperate Characters – reading a third of it in one day. It is a jump from the grand scope (in space and time) of Zola’s naturalistic social prose to the focused crystalline details of the more modern novel. It is so compressed, so focused on seemingly random details and thoughts of the characters. Very modern, very New York.

Fun.

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.”
― Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

La Terre

“And then there was pain and blood and tears, all those things that cause suffering and revolt, the killing of Françoise, the killing of Fouan, vice triumphing, and the stinking, bloodthirsty peasants, vermin who disgrace and exploit the earth. But can you really know? Just as the frost that burns the crops, the hail that chops them down, the thunderstorms which batter them are all perhaps necessary, maybe blood and tears are needed to keep the world going. And how important is human misery when weighed against the mighty mechanism of the stars and the sun? What does God care for us? We earn our bread only by dint of a cruel struggle, day in, day out. And only the earth is immortal, the Great Mother from whom we spring and to whom we return, love of whom can drive us to crime and through whom life is perpetually preserved for her own inscrutable ends, in which even our wretched degraded nature has its part to play.”
― Émile Zola, The Earth (La Terre)

Book Cover, Zola’s La Terre (The Earth)

It was September, 2018 when I started reading the twenty novel Rogon-Macquart cycle by Emile Zola. Last night, I finished La Terre (The Earth), the eighteenth in the recommended reading order (the fifteenth published).

Here’s what I’ve read so far:

La Terre was a long (500 plus pages) book, but not too difficult – there were fewer characters and their relationships were a lot less complicated than in, say, Nana or Au Bonheur des Dames.

The connection to the rest of the Rougon-Macquart novels is Jean Macquart. He is the  brother of Gervaise from L’Assommoir and Nana’s uncle. Jean is a drifter, an army veteran, who gives up being a carpenter to work as a field laborer in a vast wheat-growing area known as La Beauce. He stays for a decade and becomes part of the territory, although the people there never view him as one of their own. It reminded me of Germinal where a Macquart (Etienne Lantier, Jean’s nephew) show up and in desperation finds work and tries, unsuccessfully to become part of the community.  

Most of the plot revolves around the family of the elderly farmer Fouan who is forced by age to divide his meager lands among his three children. There is a fourth, young daughter, Françoise, who becomes involved with Jean Macquart. The plot is obviously inspired by King Lear where jealousy, greed, and treachery among siblings leads to madness, disaster, and death.

Things do not end well.

And hanging over everyone in the book is the fear of vast quantities of cheap American Wheat starting to flow across the Atlantic and reduce the price of agricultural products so much the French farmers are facing doom. My family comes from wheat farmers in Kansas – to me that was an interesting fear and description of the vast Midwest plains of endless grain and mechanized agriculture.

The book is not as well known as some of Zola’s other work – but it is unquestionably a masterpiece. It took me too long to start and too long to get through, but it was very good, although depressing and not very kind to the idea of man’s ultimate goodness. There are no heroes in the book, not really even Jean himself – though he may be the only character that the reader won’t decry as evil.

So on to the next… only two to go. I do think I’ll take a break from Zola for a bit…. My Kindle is filling up, I need to sit down with pen and paper and work through a reading plan – organize my fiction and non-fiction… I’m be back to you with what I decide.

Wish me luck.

Little Free Libraries Everywhere

“Are you happy wearing clothes that don’t give you pleasure? Do you feel joy when surrounded by piles of unread books that don’t touch your heart? Do you think that owning accessories you know you’ll never use will ever bring you happiness?
The answer to these questions should be no.
Now imagine yourself living in a space that contains only things that spark joy. Isn’t this the lifestyle you dream of?”
― Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing

Little Free Library near my house. They were generous at the start of COVID.

One of my goals, now that I am no longer gainfully employed, is to straighten up, organize, and de-clutter my little piece of the world (a couple of rooms and part of a garage). I am not a hoarder, but I am on the edge and can keep too much valuable stuff. One of my biggest weaknesses over the decades has been books.

It spiraled out of control when we lived in Mesquite. Our house had a long and wide hallway – wide enough to line with bookshelves. One of my favorite pastimes was to go to Half-Price (a chain of local used books stores) and buy books from the clearance rack. I filled those shelves. The kids referred to it as my “library.” Unfortunately that arrangement concealed the sheer number of tomes involved – until we moved to Richardson. The movers charged us an extra 500 bucks… “I’ve never seen so many books in my life,” the guy said.

So I was put on a diet – two full-sized and one half-sized bookcase. If I want a new book, I have to get rid of one. Of course, then the Kindle came along and my appetite for actual books waned somewhat. I might have a “library” as big as the one in my hallway back in Mesquite – but it’s all digital and doesn’t actually take up any real space – and gigabytes are plentiful and cheap.

But still, I am trying to reduce, eliminate, and de-clutter – and there are still too many books. It’s funny, but to this day, I can’t throw books away. I probably should do that, with some good books, just to teach myself that the world won’t end. But there are other options.

I have a routine now. We have a little table by the front door where we put the mail when we bring it in. I keep a few books there – ones I’ve selected that I have read, or have on my Kindle, or suspect I will die before I get to it. Every time I go for a bike ride in the ‘hood I grab a book and drop it off at a Little Free Library.

It is shocking how many of those things are out there. You don’t really notice them from a car – but from a bicycle they are impossible not to spot. I have yet gone to the same one twice – though I will soon.

The only problem is that nobody is picking up the books I leave. They are all good books, but usually a tad on the difficult side. Most people seem to be looking for children’s books, cookbooks, mysteries, or thrillers.

It is what it is.

The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments

“I’ve spent years living safely to secure a longer life, and look where that’s gotten me. I’m at the finish line but I never ran the race.”

― Adam Silvera, They Both Die at the End

Banned Book

Today, I received an internet ad from a rare book site. I usually ignore these completely and easily, but this one caught my eye. It was for a copy of the “Rare” book – The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments – accompanied by a photo of the cover. I instantly recognized that cover, because my parents had bought me a copy (which I eventually completely wore out until if fell apart) when I was in… third grade or so.

In a week, I’m going to retire, which will be the end of a forty-five plus year career as a chemist. I’ve worked in a mine, cleaning up toxic waste sites, responding to chemical spills and accidents, running an analytical lab, working in arguably the biggest  paint factory in the world, and supporting a sophisticated microelectronics and semiconductor manufacturing factory. All of this, for good or for bad, pretty much began with that book (along with a chemistry set)  when I was in third grade.

I spent untold hours trying out all of the experiments that the book held that I could assemble the raw materials and equipment for… and more untold hours poring over the experiments and demonstrations that I couldn’t find the equipment for. My chemistry set – it came in a double folding metal cabinet – chemicals in plastic bottles on one side – laboratory glassware, including an alcohol burner, on the other. I remember spilling my precious phenolphthalein powder and thinking, “I’ll never see any of that cool stuff again!” – I had no idea (I have done more acid/base titrations in my life that an human should be forced to do).

I especially enjoyed setting up an apparatus for the electrolytic separation of water into oxygen and hydrogen. For someone that young – hydrogen explosions are cool.

This “rare” book appearing in a random email ad brought back so many memories – piled one upon the other – back from decades and decades ago.

But the question is, why is that book “rare.” Thousands of parents must have bought that book for their kids like mine did – I’m sure every school library had a copy.

The problem is, a few years after I had my grubby paws on my copy – someone realized that there was some dangerous stuff in the book. It tells how to make chlorine (though not, in my opinion, dangerous quantities) and talks about several reagents that have since been identified as potential carcinogens (but what hasn’t, really). So the book was banned, removed from library shelves, and destroyed as a menace to society. Chemistry sets too, like the one I had, are not available anymore. It is not considered safe to have third graders in the basement melting sulfur with an alcohol burner – no matter how much fun, how educational, and how bad-smelling that is.

It didn’t help that the book inspired one kid to try and build his own atomic breeder reactor. From Wikipedia:

The book was also believed to be a source of inspiration to David Hahn, nicknamed “the Radioactive Boy Scout” by the media, who attempted to construct a nuclear reactor in his mother’s shed,[2] although the book does not include any nuclear reactions.

It’s a shame. Danger is overrated. Risk is not understood – not balanced against the possible reward. How many future chemists ended up studying “Blank” Studies in college, instead of something useful. Useful and dangerous – in my mind the two words are synonymous.

I see that the PDF of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments is available as a free download. If my kids were still small – I’d download it, print it out, and see if they are interested.