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the agony and ecstasy of a reading life
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I have enjoyed Michale Dirda’s writing for a very long time. I even got to see him speak once and left liking him even more than I did before. He is one of those book reviewers who really do love reading and even better, he loves reading all kinds of books. The man is not a snob and enjoys the classics as much as pulp science fiction and is not ashamed of it. Add to this a relaxed writing style that comes across as friendly and smart and, well, what’s not to like about the guy?
In his newest collection, Browsings, we are treated to a year’s worth of online columns he wrote for The American Scholar from February 2012 to February 2013. These pieces are not reviews at all, more like blog posts in which Dirda shares about books he’s reading, conventions and book festivals he attends, the used bookstores he haunts and his reader’s dilemma of where to keep the piles he can’t help but bring home. He comes across as being a nerdy reader just like all of us, except he also happens to be the editor of the Washington Post’s Bookworld.
In one of his essays he mentions that the older he gets, the more he loves to read old, obscure stuff, adventure novels, science fiction and fantasy from the late 1800s to early 1900s. Problem is, he doesn’t get to write about these things very often. Now and then he gets to write an introduction to an anthology or to a reissue, but writing something in the Washington Post or other book review venue, not so much. They all want the new stuff. Which leaves him with a kind of lost feeling because he says he has
come to feel that if I don’t write about a book in a review or essay, then I haven’t actually read it. Gathering my thoughts, outlining an author’s argument, framing a few apt quotations, trying to make inchoate impressions coherent — all these activities give substance to my experience of a work, make it real in a way that ‘reading’ alone doesn’t.
Oh yes, Mr. Dirda, I know that feeling well!
He also made me wonder whether we all didn’t dream of having the same library and whether we might all go in together and do a time-share thing so that I can have the library for two weeks in December and a week in June and you can have it for a couple weeks in January and another week in August, that kind of thing. You know the library I am talking about, the same one Dirda dreams of having:
I yearn for one of those country house libraries, lined on three walls with mahogany bookshelves, their serried splendor interrupted only by enough space to display, above the fireplace, a pair of crossed swords or sculling oars and perhaps portraits of some great English worthy. The fourth wall would, of course open onto my gardens, designed and kept up by Christopher Lloyd, with the help of Robin Lane Fox, who would also be sure that there were occasional Roman antiquities — statutes of nymphs and cupidons — along the graveled walks.
Of course, if you all want to go in on this we could save some cash by letting me be the gardener. Sure, I’d get to live there year-round but I’d only need a little house tucked away on the grounds and I’d stay away from the library during your visits unless you ask me to stop by for a cuppa. At which time I would also bring you some fresh-picked flowers for the library and vegetables for your dinner. What do you say?
Since Browsings is not specifically book reviews I feel as though I have gotten off lightly and didn’t add too many books to my TBR. I must admit though that Dirda did make me want very badly a book I had no idea even existed until he raved about it: The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. I have never gotten excited about a thesaurus before but after Dirda finished with me I was a drooling mess. And then in my email came a Black Friday 30% off Barnes and Noble coupon. And I happened to have to a gift card burning a hole in my pocket.
My new thesaurus should be here by Wednesday or Thursday. So if my vocabulary begins to veer out of the usual ruts, you will know why! If it gets out of hand, send letters of complaint to Michael Dirda.
So, Browsings. An enjoyable little book to read in spare moments or before bed. Not a book to spend lengths of time with but to dip into, to browse. It whirls by faster than you expect it to and leaves you wanting more. Can’t get much better than that.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Michael Dirda
Ah, what a lovely long holiday weekend it has been! Thanksgiving on Thursday was decadent and delicious. Bookman started the day off by making us a pancake breakfast. These weren’t just any pancakes though. No sirree. These pancakes are actually supposed to be waffles but they stick to our waffle iron so badly they have become pancakes. Brownie pancakes. Walnuts and chocolate and drizzled with a cashew cream. My blood sugar is generally pretty low in the morning and let me tell you, these things pumped it up pretty darn fast! Combined with some very strong coffee, they kept us going into the middle of the afternoon when we decided it was time to have pumpkin pie.
As you can tell, we live by the motto, “dessert first” at our house.
The enchiladas at dinner were delicious as always and provided two days of leftovers. Normal eating will now resume until Winter Solstice.
To compensate for all the food, I rode 75 miles/121 km on my bike trainer on Saturday and burned close to 1800 calories. It was a fun ride. There were a lot of people riding in Zwift that day because there were several group rides going on for charity that were being led by professional cyclists. I don’t really follow professional cycling but even I recognized some of the names. I did not join any rides but I did occasionally get caught up in a group especially on the uphill sections of the course where everyone slows down and the pack gets strung out along the virtual mountain.
Also, note to self, just because Astrid is on a trainer doesn’t mean I don’t have to regularly check the tire pressure. My cadence and trainer feed kept skipping off and on and I couldn’t figure out what the problem was. The computer was working and all the tech seemed fine. Then Bookman noticed my back tire that sits against the trainer wheel thingy was looking a little flat. He set the trainer tighter against the wheel and problem solved. Today I got out the pump to discover I had only about 70 psi in the tire and there is supposed to be 120 psi! Oops.
Thursday it snowed all day. We only got about an inch/2.5 cm but it is amazing how just that little bit of snow has changed the landscape so much. October weather lasted far into November and really, we only had about a week of November blah. November here is usually a cold, gray month. Everything has been killed by frost, all the leaves have dropped and it is drab and dull. But the leaves hung on through the first part of the month and I still had a few flowers and plants in the garden until a little over a week ago. And now we have snow. We will be getting more snow tomorrow, enough that we will have to shovel. Time to get out the winter coat and find my snowboots.
As the snow fell outside I was inside reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It just so happens the chapter was called “Winter.” I had an extra happy moment of recognition when I read this:
I bloom indoors in the winter like a forced forsythia; I come in to come out. At night I read and write, and things I have never understood become clear; I reap the harvest of the rest of the year’s planting.
When the weather is warm spring and summer and fall I am outdoors doing, doing, doing. There is not much time to stop and think because those flowers need to be staked, the beans need to be picked, The rose needs to be deadheaded and everything needs to be weeded. There is laundry on the line and long bike rides to far away parks and lakes, and even when I do stop and look and be still it is a very active sort of stillness. Now, indoors with snow on the ground, there isn’t as much to do and time feels thick and sticky like molasses and things get done when they get done. There is much more staring off into space and gazing out of windows giving thoughts plenty of room to cavort.
During one of my window gazings the other day I spied a big fat squirrel. This squirrel was so big and fat that I did not immediately recognize it as being a squirrel. My eyes landed on it and I thought, there is a woodchuck in the yard, how strange. And I blinked and the woodchuck became a squirrel. The fattest squirrel I have ever seen. It is well provisioned for the winter!
Waldo and Dickens are wearing their winter fur now too. They were both so very happy these last few days. I got out a quilt and put it on my reading chaise and spent many hours reading. There is just enough room for the three of use to curl up together. And when I get stiff from sitting and need to get up, Waldo glares at me in such a way that I am glad he is a small housecat. He is so good at these threatening looks that I think he may be a reincarnated gangster who regularly sighs, what fresh hell is this? All three of us will be very sad when I have to go back to work on Monday morning.
However, there is a long vacation ahead. Three weeks and then I get a two-week vacation. I have no travel plans. It is the busiest time of year at work for Bookman. I will be left mostly to my own devices. Quilt, chaise, cats, a big pile of books. I can hardly wait!
Filed under: Personal
We will be celebrating Thanksgiving at my house tomorrow. It will just be Bookman and me. Since we’ve been vegan for over twenty years, we have created our own traditional Thanksgiving feast that does not center around turkey and stuffing and gravy. We make vegan enchiladas filled with tofu and vegetables and vegan cheese that we make from almond butter and other ingredients. On the side is brown rice and beans and tortilla chips.
We used to make these enchiladas several times a year but as they became our Thanksgiving feast we gradually stopped eating them at other times. Now it is a rarity to make them except at Thanksgiving. Because of this they have become something extra-special and we both start talking about them in anticipation as soon as the calendar turns to November.
We also have homemade pumpkin pie. The pumpkin was grown in our garden, adding an extra layer of satisfaction. Pumpkin pie is my most favoritest kind of pie. We used to buy graham cracker crusts but a few yeas ago Bookman learned how to make his own traditional pie crust and elevated our pie to even higher deliciousness.
While Thanksgiving is a great day for food, what makes it most special is sharing it with Bookman. Because it is just the two of us, it is a quiet, leisurely day. I keep him company while he is in the kitchen, read him poetry or silly magazine articles or just chat about this and that. It is one of the few days in the entire year that we give ourselves permission to not worry about chores or projects or errands, things that need to be done. Time is so often short and attention divided, to be able to give these things to the person I love most and also receive them in return fills my heart with joy and gratitude. That’s what Thanksgiving is about to me. It reminds me of how blessed I am and how much I truly have to be thankful for.
Allow me to spill some thankfulness on all of you. Thank you for stopping by and commenting, thanks for adding to my reading piles and lists, thanks for making this little part of the internet a fun and happy place, and thanks for your friendship and always being such kind and generous people. Whether or not you are celebrating Thanksgiving on Thursday, I hope your day is filled with love and gratitude and joy.
Filed under: Personal
I am not sure how I found out about Leaf by Daishu Ma but I am glad I did. Such a gorgeous book. Have you heard of it?
Leaf is a picture-only graphic novel that tells the story of a leaf, or rather the story of a young man who finds an unusual leaf while out walking one autumn day. He journeys around his town trying to find the tree from which this leaf came but without success. He finds a woman who studies leaves and she does not know anything about it either. She puts the leaf in a special jar to preserve it. The young man carries the jar with him everywhere. But then an accident and the jar breaks and the leaf gets sucked up into a place where leaves from all over are collected and sent to be burned for electricity. He chases down the leaf, trying to save it. And something beautiful happens, I won’t say what, you will have to read the book and find out.
Because this is a story told completely without words, the art is extremely important. From small panels to large panels, from multiple pictures on a page to one picture that covers both pages, the detail is amazing. The pictures are done in pencil, mostly gray graphite, but then there are colors blended in to highlight: pale blue and yellow. These are used sparingly and create a richness and magic that is delightful.
The book itself is a lovely thing. Large-format, about the size of a piece of A4 paper, hardcover with thick matte-finished paper. The cover of the book has a cutout in the shape of a leaf through which the title and the author’s name appears.
For a taste of this book, visit Daishu Ma’s website. I don’t know much about Ma, only that she is Chinese. She completed a business degree in the UK before deciding to follow her childhood passion by attending Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London. As far as I can tell, she does a lot of illustration but this is her only book.
Leaf doesn’t take long to read and that means you can read it several times. I recommend multiple readings and with much lingering over your favorite drawings. Also, if you have children around, I bet it would be really fun to read with them and ask them to tell you the story. It is clear what the story is, but at the same time there is lots of room for imagination. Don’t miss this book if you can help it. And let’s hope Ma gives us more.
Filed under: Books
, Graphic Novels
Tagged: Daisha Ma
I probably should have known better. But so many weeks of mild weather lulled me into complacency. Each weekend I thought, I should empty the rain barrels. But the forecast for the week would be warm and I’d think, eh, I’ll do it next weekend. The last two days we did not get above freezing and Bookman went out this morning to drain the barrels. Too late. Both of them are frozen solid. How could that be? How could 55 gallons of water freeze solid in two days? Well it did. We were hoping for some melt today but the high only made it to 33F/.5C. However, the forecast for the next few days says nights below freezing but days above. So. We opened the hose valves on the barrels for the water to drain should it melt. I hope it melts. Then we can tip the barrels upside down to keep snow out of them and set them up again in spring. Hopefully this one freeze won’t spilt the barrels. Plastic, even when it is thick, is surprisingly fragile when it freezes.
Butterfly weed seeds
During the week I noticed the butterfly weed pods split open. I have one in the front yard and have never seen it do this, probably because by late summer it gets hidden by the taller purple coneflowers. At first I thought it was milkweed and for the life of me could not remember milkweed growing there at all. I was beginning to doubt my memory when I looked up butterfly weed on the internet and discovered, yes, it does have pods that burst open and looks remarkably like milkweed. I also discovered that the plants really like sandy soil which explains why it is doing so well where I planted it in the back garden, the soil in its bed is pretty sandy. This is a happy stroke of luck. I have a chicken garden that is full of sand buried beneath woodchips and leaves. Some of those seeds are going to get scattered along the sandy margins this week. Come spring I just have to remember where they got planted so if they actually sprout, I won’t accidentally pull them up thinking they are a random unwanted weed.
Speaking of the chickens, Bookman and I went out to work on the coop this afternoon. While our bodies were warmly layered, our hands were not. Work gloves are not insulated and one cannot build in mittens. So we got two rafter support beams up before our hands were so numb we could no longer feel them. Barring any surprise “warm” days or December/January thaws, our coop building is done until spring. We didn’t get as much done as I had hoped, but we made pretty good progress considering we have never done anything like this before. If we don’t get the rafters attached before spring, that will be first on the agenda. Then the fun with plywood and foam insulation begins. We bought a jigsaw in preparation for cutting holes in the plywood sheets for windows, doors and vents. Fun times ahead for spring!
Will you be surprised to know I am already thinking about what to plant in the garden next year? That early seed catalog I got? I’ve paged through it all and marked it all up. I’m planning on trying a new to me green bean in the garden, a variety called “masai” that I have heard is tasty and has a very high yield. I also just read a Mother Earth News article about turnips and learned there are small turnips about the size of a golfball that are mostly Japanese varieties that can be eaten fresh, even sliced up like water chestnuts and used in stir fries for a bit of crunch. This has made me far more excited than I should be. After two years of not having much success with parsnips, I have decided to toss those out and plant more turnips which I do have success with. So next year I’ll plant the big late season turnips and the small early season ones too.
And then of course I am planning what to grow on the green roof of the chicken coop. I decided to have a purple/blue and orange color scheme. All the plants have to be drought tolerant and low growing. So far I have decided on blue fescue grass, pussytoes, pasque flower and catmint (not a cat-attracting variety!). Next autumn I will plant spring blooming bulbs of Siberian squill, grape hyacinth, and orange species tulips. The roof is 10 feet/3 m long and about 2.5 feet/.8 m from peak to edge. I am planting both sides of it so have lots of area to play with and all winter to imagine and plan. If you could see me as I type this, I have the biggest, dopiest grin on my face.
I am still reading Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I am reading it little bits at a time and I hope, as the gardening posts become few and far between for a while, you won’t mind me updating you on my progress through this beautiful book and the occasional quote. This one is from the chapter called “Seeing:”
It is possible, in deep space, to sail on solar wind. Light, be it particle or wave, has force: you rig a giant sail and go. The secret to seeing is to sail on solar wind. Hone and spread your spirit till you yourself are a sail, whetted, translucent, broadside to the merest puff.
Isn’t that a beautiful image?
Biking on the trainer is going great. Zwift added a bunch of workouts a couple weeks ago and I thought I would give one of them a try. I chose an intervals workout that was 60 minutes long. The workout Zwift gives me is based on my FTP (functional threshold power). I expected it would be hard, but holy Lance Armstrong Batman! After the first two intervals I was sucking wind so bad I could not get my watts up to where they were supposed to be. The screen kept flashing “More Power” in big read letters. I yelled at my legs like Captain Kirk to Scottie, “Give me more power!” And my legs yelled back, “I’m givin’ ye all she’s got Cap’n!” And then the five minute interval would be over and “Fail!” would flash up on the screen in big red letters. To my credit I didn’t give up. I failed interval after interval right up to the end. I am apparently not the only one who is having problems because this week a new workout was added: 6-week ftp for beginners. Ha! As the name implies, it is a six-week workout training to improve ftp. I have decided to embark on that in January.
At the moment my riding plan is to add 5 miles/8 km to my Saturday ride each week through the end of the year. Have I mentioned this yet? Sorry if I am repeating myself. Anyway, by doing that I will be putting in a 100 mile/161 km ride on January 3rd. Yesterday I did 70 miles/112.7 km. I’ve done that far on Astrid outdoors but that included rest stops. Yesterday my only rest was a quick bathroom break. My legs were tired but my rear end was a bit sore. A hot shower never felt so good. Everything is feeling just fine today, but then I haven’t gotten on the trainer yet. That will be the real test.
That I think all of this is a whole lot of fun is utterly amazing to me. If this time last year you would have told me about this I would have called you crazy. Now it seems I am the crazy one.
Filed under: biking
Tagged: Annie Dillard
, green roof
I don’t know how I came across Anders Nilsen’s graphic collection Poetry is Useless. I do know I waited quite a while for it from the library. I don’t usually read author bios an this collection doesn’t have and “about the author” paragraph anyway so I was quite surprised when nearly at the end of the book one of the comic panels mentions a tiny independent bookstore in Minneapolis that specializes in progressive/radical literature, Boneshaker Books. How the heck does Nilsen know about them? Off to the interwebs! Where I discover that he lives in Minneapolis! Local boy!
Maybe that’s why I found his off-beat and sometimes dark sense of humor so funny? I read most of the collection before bed and I’d start laughing and Bookman would look up from his own book inquiringly, which of course is an opening for me to pepper him with all the funny things. He was very tolerant and even obliged me with a laugh now and then.
Here’s a couple examples of the humor:
Oh snowflake, how I wish to caress you. But every time you melt.
The benefit of having alienated God, having offended him, driven him away so that the two of you are no longer speaking is that at least he’s not telling you what to do all the time.
It’s also been said, however, that I am not flammable. In general this is true, except for my hair. My hair burns readily. In fact, once alight it is quite difficult to put out again.
You get the picture.
The art in this collection is really interesting. Each page is mostly what appears to be a scan of Nilsen’s notebook, a moleskine by the looks of it. The scans are surrounded by lots of white page space and sometimes this space has drawings or comics on it too. There is very little color, most things are in black and white. There are comic panels and these generally feature a single silhouette with a speech bubble in each frame. Sometimes there are two silhouette’s talking to each other.
Then there are pages of strange, abstract looking drawings that look kind of like root balls or plumbing gone wrong or some sort of weird organic alien spaceship. There are also representational drawings, most of people and these people sometimes have speech bubbles as Nilsen has overheard them taking in a cafe or on an airplane. People say some really weird things when they think no one is eavesdropping.
I liked the book and all its strangeness. Because it is made up mostly of scans from his notebook, there are errors in the text that Nilsen blacked out and even white-out and shadowy lines where the sketch originally began but then got changed. This tends to make it feel raw, unfinished, like a rough draft and I found that irritated me sometimes, which is kind of weird. But I think that is the whole point. This is a book that doesn’t want you to feel comfortable even when it makes you laugh. It is definitely a different kind of reading experience.
For more about Anders Nilsen and to browse some of his art, visit his website.
Filed under: Books
, Graphic Novels
Tagged: Anders Nilsen
As the rain outside begins to turn to snow, my mind seems to be slowing down and coming up empty this evening. So I send you elsewhere:
Rebecca Solnit’s response to the Esquire Magazine list of 80 books every man should read. In a nutshell: “I looked at that list and all unbidden the thought arose, no wonder there are so many mass murders.”
- An entertaining essay at Aeon about why English is such a weird language. If you are offended by Scandinavians being called “Scandies” do not read it, though they get high praise for contributing to the weirdness as do the Celts and the Normans.
Filed under: Books
Azar Nafisi’s The Republic of Imagination is one of those not quite this not quite that sorts of books. By that I mean it is memoir but it isn’t and it is literary criticism but it isn’t. Sometimes it is more one than the other but throughout the personal is blended in with the literary. If you have read Reading Lolita in Tehran you will have an idea of what I mean. Only in this book, Nafisi talks much more in depth about the books.
Nafisi became an American citizen in 2008. I was surprised to learn she attended university in the United States, the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. There she studied literature. She left her job teaching literature in Tehran in 1995 because she no longer felt she could teach it properly without attracting too much attention from the authorities. She remained in Tehran until 1997.
Republic of Imagination was inspired by a question she had from an earnest young Iranian man at a reading she gave in Seattle. He told her that Americans didn’t care about books and literature, that in Iran they cared much more and didn’t she feel she was wasting her time talking to people about literature? Nafisi of course disagreed and this book is her answer.
Nafisi focuses on three American novels, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Babbit by Sinclair Lewis, and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers with an epilogue in which she discusses the work of James Baldwin. She examines what each book says about the American character and mindset and why the book is important still. Into her examination of each of the novels she weaves personal stories about friends, attending university in Oklahoma, Iran. Some of her personal stories fit better with the book under discussion than others but they are all interesting even when there is a disconnect.
The chapter on Huck Finn is by far the longest, taking up nearly half the book. Nafisi is very attached to Huck and Mark Twain but she goes on far too long. Perhaps it is because she used to discuss Twain with a dear friend who died from cancer. Perhaps it is also because at the time she was planning on writing an entire book on Twain and Huckleberry Finn. As interesting as her discussion was, however, I felt myself drifting off about two-thirds of the way through the chapter, wondering what more she could possibly say that she hadn’t already and wishing we could just move on to the next book. Once she does move on, the pace picks up again.
As much as I enjoyed Republic of Imagination, and I did enjoy it very much, I don’t think Nafisi managed to provide a very good response to the Iranian man. If her intent was to prove the importance of literature to Americans, she failed completely. She does succeed in arguing that American literature has some important things to say and that it very often connects directly to real life.
Nafisi is clearly a woman who is passionate about books and literature and wants to share that passion with others. The book often reads like a conversation, though it sometimes veers into lecture. I can imagine sitting in a cafe with her talking books, her leaning forward and eagerly asking, oh what did you think about this part? and drinking way too much coffee in an attempt to keep up with her energy and leaps of thought. Not a bad book, not a great book but a good book, a very enjoyable book that makes you happy to be a reader.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Azar Nafisi
, Huckleberry Finn
, James Baldwin
, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
I have never read Kim Stanley Robinson before even though I have heard good things about him. Now that I have read Aurora, I know I’ll be reading more.
This is a science fiction story that is often heavy on the science. I don’t mind though because I do enjoy thinking about the consequences of long distance space travel. Even though Aurora takes place several centuries in the future, it is not one of those science fiction stories in which the science is more like magic and solves all our problems. The book is about a generation ship, a ship consisting of ecological biomes and about 2,000 people who were sent out to settle the stars. Humans at the time the ship was sent out had begun having success settling the solar system and believed they were ready to expand further.
After 170 years of traveling to the distant Tau Ceti system, the ship has finally arrived. Of course those arriving were not the ones who volunteered for the trip and a good many on the ship are pissed off that their predecessors chose their lives for them. They have been in what has begun to feel like a prison for a very long time and are ready to leave and settle this supposedly dead moon that has still managed to have water and oxygen.
There is a lot they have to figure out. The days and nights are not equal to Earth days and nights but are much longer. How do they adapt the plants they brought with them to such a day/night cycle? The moon they are to colonize also has a constant wind blowing, not a gentle breeze, but often hard enough to knock people over. They are also beginning to suffer the effects of having such a small genetic pool. Not to mention the systems in the ship itself are showing larger and larger metabolic rifts. But these humans are determined to make a go of it for no other reason than they can’t bear to live on the ship any longer.
But it turns out the planet is not dead after all. One of the landing crew is infected with something after she sinks in some mud and cuts her leg. Soon all of the people who had been on the surface setting up the foundations of the new settlement are sick and dying. The virus is completely alien and no one knows how to stop it. Within a week all 70 of the people who were on the moon are dead. Those on the ship have a decision to make. There are those who want to stay in the Tau Ceti system and try again on another moon. The other half of the population wants to go back to Earth because this colonizing the stars things is a bunch of baloney. In the end half stay and half return to Earth. It is the group that decides to return to Earth that the book follows from here.
It took me a while to warm up to the book but I am glad I stuck with it. The reason it was hard is because the main narrator is the ship’s AI which came into “consciousness” because of one of the crew members. As the ship learns to tell the story of its humans there is much musing over language and how inadequate it is, about metaphors and how imprecise they are, that kind of thing. AIs trying to figure out human language is not all that interesting to me and it felt sometimes like it was just an opportunity for Robinson to do his own musing through the mouthpiece of the ship.
But then something clicked and I can’t say what. And Ship began to grow on me until Ship becomes a full character in its own right. The ship trying to figure things out doesn’t stop. Eventually the ship starts to wonder about what it means to be conscious and of course, by extension, what it means to be human.
There is also a lot in the book about ecosystems and balance, the needs of the many versus the needs of the few, about choices and who gets to make them and what the consequences of choices are and who has to face them. It is also really interesting that a book about settling the stars kind of ends up being against it. Not against exploration per se, but there is the suggestion that because humans evolved on Earth that is the place they are suited to live and no other. Sure, we may eventually create colonies on other planets in our solar system, but in the book even the people living on the colonies have to return to Earth every ten years or so for their mental and physical health. It is a pleasantly subtle and different way to emphasize that Earth is our home and we need to take care of it for all our sakes.
A good and thought-provoking book. Well written and completely plausible. I recommend it to anyone who likes think-y science fiction with actual science in it.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Generation ship
, Kim Stanley Robinson
, Space exploration
I’ve been thinking about the terrorist attacks in Paris all weekend. It breaks my heart, all this hatred in the world. My deepest sympathies to the family and friends who lost loved ones and to all the people of France. I grieve with you.
I rode 65 miles/104.6 kms yesterday and it was really amazing to see the support for France offered up by the other cyclists. We all have our country’s flags that appear with our names on the rider board and people riding in France were deluged with “Ride on” thumb’s up. One rider even commented on how wonderful the support was. Many riders added “PFP” or #France or some other tag after their name. There was even talk of having a group ride against terrorism. It was a supportive communal kindness I did not expect to find in an online virtual cycling “game” and it made me glad to be part of it.
This morning Bookman was out working in the front yard cutting back perennials for the time when the snow arrives. Even though it was close to 60F/15C today, the cold and snow will eventually descend. And since I do the snow shoveling I can tell you it is a giant pain in the backside to have the dead perennials and grasses flop over onto the sidewalk and freeze there. Unfortunately Bookman’s hard work gave him a pain in the back and he barely made it into the house before he was hit with a big spasm.
He sprawled out on the floor just inside the door and lay there until the worst of it passed. I got the heating pad and arranged pillows on the couch and stood at the ready to lend a hand as he slowly struggled to get himself upright. Water and ibuprofen soon followed.
Gradually his back began to feel better and he was able to get up and carefully move around. We had plans to do the rafters on the chicken coop today and it seemed as though they were in jeopardy. However, not long after lunch Bookman decided he wanted to give the rafters a try, he needed to move around. I did all the bending and lifting and ever so carefully we managed to not only cut all the boards to build the rafters but we put all five of them together too!
Five rafters ready to install!
I must say we both feel rather proud of ourselves and like we accomplished something really big. The rafters are not up on the coop itself yet, I can’t lift them up alone and Bookman was in no condition to do any lifting anyway. So getting those up will be for next Sunday which will not be nearly as nice as it was today. It appears the weather shoe is about to drop and by mid-week we will be crashing to seasonal temperatures — hard frosts at night and daytime highs only a few degrees above freezing. As long as there isn’t snow we’ll keep working.
And now for something a little different. I’ve been thinking for a few months about wanting to try my hand at essay writing. I am not keen on the idea of writing an essay and then flogging it around to different websites or magazines trying to get it published. Nor do I want to purposely write commercial pieces with a specific audience or publication in mind. I just want to write essays on whatever I feel like.
I read an article at The Guardian the other day about how the internet is an ideal home for the essay. And I thought, hmm, what if? I haven’t made it past the idea stage to execution stage yet, but my plan is to create a separate website from this blog for the purpose of essays. I’d like to aim for two a month but I don’t know if that is too ambitious. It seems like it might be. I am thinking it would be good if the site were more active than just one or two essays a month from me, and wonder if any of you might be persuaded to write an essay? It could be a one-off or perhaps you enjoy essay writing so much you might want to write a few. In my mind, I am thinking posting one essay a week would be pretty decent. Topics will not be limited to books. My intent is a site for personal essay writing to explore whatever strikes my — or possibly your — fancy.
What do you think? Even if no one wants to contribute an essay I will still be moving ahead with it for my own personal experiments in writing. It could be a wild success or a terrible failure. But to me, essays are all about the process, the attempt, as the word “essay” implies. I don’t know when I will have this new venture up and running, but it is in the works and I already have begun a list of things I want to write about. It’s a little scary, a leap into the unknown for me, but no matter what happens, I’ll be glad I at least tried.
Filed under: biking
The lovely Elle of Elle Thinks has tagged me for a TBR meme. It’s been a long time since I have done a meme, so why not? Besides, who doesn’t enjoy talking about their TBR piles?
How do you keep track of your TBR pile?
Now that I got that off my chest.
When I talk about my TBR I am talking about two different forms, the actual pile of books that I have bought and a mass of lists I keep because there is no way on earth that I could ever actually buy all the books I want to read and even if I could, I have nowhere to keep them all. If I have bought the book, I generally catalog it at LibrayThing and then put it on a shelf above my desk. However I have more TBR books than will fit on this shelf so they also live on a large library cart in the basement library as well as on the basement library bookshelves because the cart isn’t big enough either.
When I don’t buy a TBR book, a thing that is becoming the norm, I place the title on a WorldCat list or on a list at my public library. But whether I own the book or put it on a list, once either of those occurs, I tend to forget all about it. So I keep track, but in reality keeping track is only an illusion.
Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?
See above. When it is not an actual print book, it is on a wishlist so neither print nor ebook but only a dream of a book.
How do you determine which books from your TBR to read next?
The library usually decides for me. If I actually get to choose then it is by what mood I am in and that is usually keyed off how busy life is and what else I am reading at the time. So first I think of fiction or nonfiction and then I decide genre and then I think of all the books in that category I’ve been wanting to read and then I narrow it down and pick one. Once I pick one I slap myself in the forehead and yell doh! because throughout this entire process I did not bother to look at my TBR lists or shelves.
A book that has been on my TBR the longest?
Yeah, I have a science fiction book I bought as a teenager, Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany, that I have not read yet. That was over 20 years ago. I still mean to read it!
A book you recently added to your TBR?
The most recent physical book I added is The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar: Essays on Poets and Poetry by Helen Vendler. The most recent book I added to a TBR list is Woman at Point Zero by Nawal El Saadawi.
A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?
Uh, none at the moment.
A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?
Every book that goes on my TBR I plan on reading. There are currently more books on my TBR than I can actually read should I live an average human lifetime.
Good thing I am not an average human.
An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?
The Cabaret of Plants: Forty Thousand Years of Plant Life and the Human Imagination by Richard Mabey.
A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?
Almost all the books on my TBR were recommended in one way or another and most of those recommendations come from other people’s blogs. I can’t begin to tell you how relieved I am when I read a blog about a book and the book in question does not end up on my TBR!
A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?
Currently it seems like H is for Hawk by Helen McDonald.
A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?
Absolutely all of them. But at the moment the one I am anticipating most is Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie. The library has not seen fit to make my turn come round yet. But I am up to number ten in the holds queue which is progress since earlier this week I was number thirteen.
How many books are on your TBR shelf?
Shelf? Try Shelves. There are far too many to count and I will not count them because it would make me feel sad and guilty and those are two things one should never feel in relation to one’s books. In terms of my TBR lists, hundreds.
Well that was fun! I won’t tag anyone directly but if you’d like to play along, please do! And link back so I can find you.
Filed under: Books
Wow, so this is going to take a little while.
I took The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth with me to work today to start reading on my lunch break. It is not a book that is good for reading on half-hour lunch breaks while eating. Not that the book puts one off eating, only that eating while reading this book requires you either a) don’t pay complete attention to the book so you can enjoy your lunch or b) don’t pay attention to your lunch, how it tastes, whether it is actually all making it into your mouth and not down the front of your shirt or all over your face.
Divided attention will not work wth this book.
Nor will short reading sessions. This is because the book is written in an “updated” form of old English. Before beginning to read I thought, really how hard could it be? It’s updated after all. I expected modern spelling, some archaic words, something more akin to reading Shakespeare than Beowulf or Chaucer.
Oh silly me and my assumptions that were all very quickly blown to pieces. Here is the second paragraph of the book’s beginning, the second because the first is too short to really give you the flavor:
when i woc in the mergen all was blaec though the night had gan and all wolde be blaec after and for all time. a great wind had cum in the night and all was blown then and broc. none had thought a wind lic this colde cum for all was blithe lifan as they always had and who will hiere the gleoman when the tales he tells is blaec who locs at the heofon if it brings him regn who locs in the mere when the there seems no end to its deopness.
There are paragraphs but no capital letters, no commas, only the occasional period. After a bit the rhythm is song like, there is even a kind of chorus that chimes in with short almost chants. It is slow reading puzzling out the words but after a bit they start to make more sense. It feels kind of like working out a code in some ways. Or a foreign language.
My lunch was over just as I began to feel like I was getting in the flow of the words. Rereading them is easier and faster, they make more sense.
So I brought the book back home with me. Will only read it when I have at least an hour to spend which essentially means it has been relegated to early evenings and weekends. I don’t know if I can finish before my three-week library loan period. Maybe I will have to buy my own copy? Maybe it will be that good. I’ll know for sure in a week, after I have spent more time with the book.
Filed under: Books
, In Progress
Tagged: Old English is like a foreign language
Remember last week when I posted about November reading and mentioned I was waiting for Ann Leckie’s book from the library and also was going to be picking up two graphic novels? Of course you do, you keep detailed notes of my reading habits. Wait, you don’t? That’s ok, I don’t either so why should you? We’re just flying by the seat our pants here which explains all the holes in my jeans. I either need to get patches or some really interesting underwear. But I digress.
So I got the graphic novels, already read Lumberjanes and am laughing my way through Poetry is Useless. I am at number 13 on the holds list for the Leckie book. And of course three other books I have been in queue for quite some time have come round to my turn. I was not expecting these! Just when I was feeling like my reading was under control again.
Well, part of the problem is that a couple months ago I broke my vow to limit myself to five library holds at a time. The waits were long, what could possibly go wrong?
Yes, go ahead and snicker. I would do the same if you were telling me this story.
But let’s jump from holy cow! How am I going to read all these unrenewables by their due dates? and go directly to, yay look at what books I got from the library!
The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. Another Graywolf book that is getting lots of buzz. It is a post-apocalypitc novel set 1,000 years in the past during William the Conquerer’s time. I know right? A historical post-apocalypse novel. How crazy is that? Doesn’t that alone make you curious?
Browsings by Michael Dirda. I am always a sucker for Dirda’s bookish essays. This is his newest collection. I don’t think any further explanation is needed on this one.
Speak by Louisa Hall. I don’t remember where I heard about this one. Five characters all from different points in time. It’s a novel about language, the need to communicate, artificial intelligence and what it means to be human. It is not science fiction. Nonetheless, it makes my nerdy heart beat a tiny bit faster.
None of these books are super fat but none are especially thin either. I am not sure how I am going to manage to read them all but I will make a valiant effort.
And just to add fuel to the fire, I got my first seed catalog in the mail today. Not from one of the places that I never order from but one of my favorites, Pinetree Garden Seeds. Part of me wants to take all those books back to the library so I can spend as much time as I want devouring the catalog. Seeds! Garden! What new thing should I try next year? But since I won’t even place a seed order until January at the earliest, I will have to pry my eyes away from the beautiful cover of colorful beets and try to focus on library books.
I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.
Filed under: Books
, In Progress
I was very much looking forward to the second volume of Lumberjanes having enjoyed the first one so much. I didn’t love the first one but I quite liked it and was hoping volume two would see the story hitting its stride and really doing something. But instead it just got really weird.
At first it seemed like Rosie, the tattooed and somewhat mysterious owner of the camp would get more story time as she goes off with her axe and leaves counselor Jen in charge. Jen wants to make sure everyone stays safe and isn’t all that confident she can manage it so she keeps all the girls in camp making friendship bracelets. But trouble does not take long to find Jo, April, Mal, Molly and Ripley. Molly needs to go to the outhouse and when she arrived there is an out of order sign on the door. She opens the door anyway and out burst three — velociraptors? Through teamwork and ingenuity the girls are able to neutralize the dinosaurs and save the day.
Rosie returns with some kind of mysterious crystal and doesn’t blink when she learns about what happened. The crystal of course turns out to be important later.
There is a rousing game of capture-the-flag. Jo might be some kind of alien or something. She has a magical amulet she buries in the woods that turns out to be important for later. Of course.
Then everything gets really weird as we learn that fellow camper Diane is really Diana/Artemis and she is in a race against her brother Apollo who has the boys’ camp in his thrall to put together all these artifacts in order to be gifted with all kinds of power from Zeus.
The friends of course save the day and Jo is not an alien and the best thing about this story was Bubbles the raccoon.
It was all very disappointing. I am not certain I will read volume three if there is going to be one. The art remains marvelous but the story just had too many elements to it that seemed to be there just to add some craziness. And while I am all for craziness, craziness for its own sake just doesn’t do it for me. Oh well.
Filed under: Books
, Graphic Novels
The weather is making it really difficult to believe it is November, but I’ve decided to just go with it and try to not be too freaked out by the weirdness of it. Climate change in action? Probably a little bit. But there is also a “Godzilla” el niño in the Pacific that is a major contributor as well. The combination makes part of me very happy because, wow, November and I spent time outdoors today plenty warm in a sweatshirt. The other part me of is worried and a little angry because this is just not right, not normal at all and nobody seems concerned, too busy running around and believing we are somehow lucky. Humph.
On a happy note, I jumped with joy the other day when President Obama said no to the entire Keystone Pipeline project. I want to thank the farmers in Nebraska for all their lawsuits that slowed the entire review process down and gave a lot more people time to comment and protest and government officials, including the president, time to seriously consider what an oil pipeline running across the U.S. from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico would mean in terms of climate change and immediate environmental impacts. So thank you Mr. President. You made me squeal with joy, clap my hands and do a happy dance. My eyes might have gotten a little teary too.
Then there is the news that Vermont Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and Senator Jeff Merkley from Oregon have proposed legislation to stop the government from issuing new leases on public lands for fossil fuel extraction. The “Keep it in the Ground Act” would also end all current non-productive leases for fossils fuels on federal land and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific. It would also prohibit offshore drilling in the Arctic and the Atlantic. It is a bold move and Republicans, many of whom don’t “believe in” climate change, are already saying the bill has no chance of passing. It is unfortunate but not surprising. Nonetheless, the fact that anyone is even proposing such legislation is a huge step in the right direction.
Turnips and a radish
Closer to home, I pulled the turnips today. One huge one and three radish sized ones and an actual radish that’s a bit deformed. Bookman is going to boil them and mash them up with a potato to have with dinner tonight. Yum.
We do not rake our leaves up from the yard. We rake them off the sidewalk only. This year we are putting the sidewalk leaves in the chicken garden. Remember it is all sand? We covered it in wood chips in August but those take so long to decompose. Now we are adding leaves. And since it has been windy these last couple of days and the neighbor across the alley from us has a huge tree in their backyard that dropped its leaves, a good many of them blew over and caught themselves along our new chain link fence. I raked them all off the fence and deposited them in the chicken garden while thanking the neighbor’s tree for the donation to our soil-building project.
Bookman and I spent quite a lot of time today looking at pictures of rafters on the internet and discussing physics and geometry. We are ready to frame the roof on the chicken coop and run and sine we are building it as a green roof we have to account for extra weight. What’s the best and easiest way to build five rafters? Lots of rafters are notched on the end of the board that sits on the structure’s frame. Do we need to do that? Also, how steep do we want the pitch of the roof?
Geometry in action
We decided from roof peak to frame would be a foot which means the roof pitch is not super steep but steep enough to provide decent drainage for the green roof. So then we had to do some geometry. Kids, if you are sitting in geometry class thinking, this is so stupid, I will never need this in real life, let me tell you that you are wrong! So we worked out the math and started to cut and drill and we changed our minds about how we wanted to build the rafters from mitered triangles screwed to the frame to notched rafters sitting on the frame edge. And we got ourselves so turned around upside down and backwards that we decided to stop and have some chocolate chip cookies.
The cookies made everything better. We decided to go back to our original rafter plan of making triangles that attach to the coop frame. Much easier than figuring out how to make notches. By this time though we had worn ourselves out so we called it quits for the day on coop building. Our building progress today was conceptual rather than actual but we have to have the concept down before we can make it reality. Now we know what we need to do and how to do it so next chance we get should go more smoothly.
That’s the idea anyway.
Something bookish. I am very much looking forward to Richard Mabey’s new book The Cabaret of Plants becoming available in the U.S. The Guardian had an essay by Mabey recently in which he talks about plants and the environment and much of what he talks about is in his book. Things like how beans use echolocation to find their poles and mimosa shrubs have a greater memory-span than bees. I am all agog. I must know more! Please book, hurry up and get published!
Just a quick note about how indoor biking is going: great!
Achievement unlocked! I did a metric century on Zwift yesterday (100km/ 62.2 miles). For that I get a special jersey my avatar can wear to let everyone know about it. It was actually harder to do on my trainer than on the road. When I am riding outdoors I get to coast on the downhills and get to rest at traffic signals. On the trainer I am pedaling all the time, no stopping. I did stop halfway for about two minutes to run to the kitchen and get a couple energy bites. But golly, did I work! And sweat! Even with a fan blowing right in my face the entire ride I went through both my water bottles, something I only have ever done on the hottest days of summer. But it was good and it was fun and I got lots of kudos from other people riding at the time. The next big goal is an imperial century (100 miles/ 161km). I wonder if I can do it by New Year’s?
Filed under: biking
Tagged: In which I learn that geometry and algebra are both handy real life skills to have
I’ve heard of kickstarting all sorts of things and have even donated to Reading Rainbow’s kickstarter campaign, but a kickstarter for a book is a new one to me!
Given that the book in question ticks a couple of my things that make me happy boxes (feminist, steampunk, bicycles) I am seriously considering contributing.
The book could end up being totally silly, but it is coming from a very small publisher that has done this sort of thing before and has many bicycling related books and zines. And if it does turn out to be bad, $15 isn’t that much to lose. Hmmm.
Have you ever heard of a kickstarter for a book? And if so, did you donate? And if so, did you like the end result?
Filed under: Books
When I wrote about The Scarlet Letter I mentioned that is was part of a project I began (and then ended) to reread a number of the books I read in high school and have not read since. Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane was the other book I read in the project. When I began reading it I was already wavering on the project and the book cemented my decision to not continue. I figure if I have not read a book since high school there was probably a good reason for that.
So, Red Badge of Courage. One of the few books I read in high school that I recall not liking at all. I hoped with time and maturity the reread would reveal the book to be amazing. Nope. While I can certainly appreciate it in a way I did not when I was 14, I still found it to be a very dull book.
First published in 1895, the book is a shining example of realism. Told from the limited third person perspective of Henry Fleming, a young man who joins up to fight in the American Civil War. His idea of what war is does not match the reality. Before he leaves, and even for a long time before he experiences battle he thinks,
It must be some sort of a play affair. He had long despaired of witnessing a Greek like struggle. Such would be no more, he had said. Men were better, or more timid.
When his regiment is finally sent out into the field they spend quite a lot of time walking and walking and walking, camping, walking some more as they are ordered to a new position, camping, waiting, waiting, waiting, only to have to move again. It is a tedious affair and the longer Henry has to wait for a battle the more he begins to worry that he will be a coward and turn and run. He becomes so obsessed by this worry that he starts asking his comrades probing questions in an attempt to find out what they think of the matter and succeeds only in annoying them.
When the battle finally comes, Henry does fine on the first assault but the enemy regroups and charges and breaks part of the line. Henry, seeing some of his comrades falling back in retreat, panics and turns tail and runs as fast and far away as he can.
He spends quite a long time wandering and berating himself for running while also trying to justify his actions. Eventually he falls in with wounded soldiers who are moving away from the lines because they can no longer fight. Among them is his friend Jim Conklin who was badly wounded, delirious, and eventually dies. During this time Henry is repeatedly asked where his wound is but avoids answering the question.
He does eventually get a wound but it doesn’t come from battle. He is whacked in the head with the butt of a riffle when he gets mixed up in a column of retreating soldiers. When he makes it back to his own regiment they all think he has been grazed in the head by a bullet and treat him kindly. Henry does not tell them the truth.
All this takes up a large portion of the book and I was beginning to think that perhaps this was an anti-war novel since the horrors are so brutally graphic and revelatory in just how much the lives of men like Henry are mere fodder.
But then the final part of the book is battle after battle and Henry, in an attempt to atone for his previous cowardice and desertion, fights valiantly and even becomes standard bearer when the previous one falls, leading his regiment to victory. During this time Henry acts almost entirely on fear, adrenaline and rage. He needs to prove himself and prove that he and his comrades are not useless and good for nothing like he overheard some officers saying they were.
And suddenly the book does not seem so anti-war any longer. It is blood and courage and glory. Henry survives the battle. His regiment regroups and gets new marching orders. As they march off, Henry thinks:
He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
And it rains. And they trudge through mud. And the book ends:
Yet the youth smiled, for he saw that the world was a world for him, though many discovered it to be made of oaths and walking sticks. He had rid himself of the red sickness of battle. The sultry nightmare was in the past. He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks–an existence of soft and eternal peace.
Over the river a golden ray of sun came through the hosts of leaden rain clouds.
What the heck are we supposed to make of that? Is Henry just as delusional now as he was before he went to join the army? Does he think the tranquility is going to be real? Or has he faced death and, knowing there are more battles ahead and he is likely to die, looking forward to a heavenly reward? I apparently am not the only one to wonder as the interwebs tell me scholars have been debating the ambiguous ending for a very long time. Well and so.
The thing I remember most from high school about this book was my teacher going on and on about Christ figures. I had misremembered it as being Henry and while reading I was so confused because I just could not see it. Turns out, the Christ figure is supposedly Henry’s friend Jim Conklin, the one he finds wounded and delirious. I am almost 100% certain that when I read that, I made the same face I did in high school when my teacher said as much.
The difference between then and now (ok there are a lot of differences, but don’t quibble with me on this) is that then there was only Cliff’s Notes and now there is the all-knowing Google. I don’t recall Cliff as being especially helpful in this case. Google, however, tells me this whole Christ figure thing is hotly disputed because no one seems to know what the book means and so a group of scholars decided it was an allegory even though the evidence for this is thin. I don’t remember if says Cliff anything about this or not, but since my entire class realized early on in the first semester that the teacher was cribbing almost everything from Cliff, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.
It also goes a long way in explaining why I was so garsh durned baffled about this idea and how it set me up for repeated “Christ figure” traumas throughout my freshman, and most of my high school, English classes. When mixed with the basic narrative conflicts drilled into my head (man against nature, man against society, man against man, man against self) it made for a pretty murky five-paragraph essay soup. How I survived high school English and majored in English literature at University is a mystery I will never be able to solve. My only guess is that I loved reading and books so much before I got to high school that there was nothing they could do ruin it for me. And thank heavens for that!
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Civil War
, Cliff's Notes
, Horrors of high school English
, Stephen Crane
We changed out clocks over the weekend and this daylight savings malarky has me all discombobulated! I didn’t sleep all that well last night thanks to the cats not sleeping all that well — they walk on me, lay on me, lick exposed parts like arm, hand, face in the hope that this will somehow induce me be want to pet and cuddle with them in the wee hours and it has not worked yet but they keep trying anyway — and just as I dozed off this morning I jolted awake with the horror that it was getting light outside and my alarm had not gone off and I was going to be late for work. Now this evening while I am eating dinner and it is suddenly full dark I have a panic that it is much later than I thought and how long having I been eating? I was reading while I ate and you know, sometimes time can get away from one, but when I looked at the clock it wasn’t late at all.
I will get used to it all within a few days, but really, this whole thing is unnecessary. I don’t know anyone who says yay daylight savings! My favorite time of year! Except kids who get excited over the illusion of having an extra hour to sleep.
And here it is November already. Does anyone else feel like the year is barreling to a close? Stores have Christmas decorations up already and I am sure in a day or two I will start hearing Christmas songs mixed in with the regular pop music while walking through Macy’s to and from work. It’s sickening really.
There is nothing sickening on the book front though, far from it. There are so many good books to read and so many that I am waiting my turn for ever so patiently at the library. One of those I am waiting for is Ancillary Mercy, the conclusion to Ann Leckie’s Imperial Raadch trilogy. I am number sixteen on the holds list at the moment. It seems like a long wait, but it might not be, you never know. So if I suddenly disappear, it is because the book arrived and I am reading it and can’t be bothered with the rest of the world.
In the meantime I have plenty of other books to occupy myself. The House of Twenty Thousand Books by Sasha Abramsky is so far a wonderful tribute to his grandfather who seemed to know everyone and everything and managed to create one heck of a private library. There is also The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. If you guessed it is about Humboldt you get a gold star! He was quite an interesting man and brilliant in so many ways, kind of manic too. A manic genius. Good book so far.
I am still reading Republic of Imagination by Azar Nafisi. I am in the final third of the book and enjoying it. I suspect I will be done in the next week or two. Also nearing the end of Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. It started off slow but it is turning out to be a good book. Not one of those lush with images and description sorts of books, nor is it a plot-driven page turner. Not exactly a character-driven book either. It’s kind of an odd duck in many ways, but it works and I keep reading and am getting a bit nervous as to how it all might come out in the end.
I am about to start reading Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Danielle and I are reading it together. We’ve both been meaning to read it for ages so we decided to stop saying we mean to read it and actually read it. And tomorrow into my paws will come from the library Lumberjanes volume 2 and a book called Poetry is Useless by Anders Nilsen. Both are graphic novels. I know exactly what to expect from Lumberjanes, no idea what to expect from Poetry is Useless. Guess I will find out soon!
I have a long four-day Thanksgiving holiday weekend to look forward to in a couple weeks. Will it be cold by then? Will I be able to spend the holiday curled up under a quilt reading and eating pumpkin pie? I will find out all too soon!
Filed under: Books
, In Progress
Just a few links of interest today.
First, Say no more often. You’ll be happier. Especially if you are a creative type. Of course, be gracious. The article includes some most excellent examples of how the likes of E.B. White and Robert Heinlein said no to requests from people. I doubt I could ever get away with the tongue-in-cheek response from White, but I would like to be able to try it sometime and see what happens!
From National Public Radio an interview with transcript on Why the Battle Between E-Books and Print May Be Over. Apparently e-books sales have leveled off, perhaps in part because of e-book prices going up. But that is with books published through publishing houses. Self-published e-books are a booming market, though no one knows exactly how booming since Amazon, one of the major venues for self-published e-books, does not reveal sales figures. It is an interesting article, but I think we will have to wait another few years before anyone can say anything definite about print v. e-book sales.
Here is something fun. Library reference questions BG (Before Google). Someone at the New York Public Library recently found an old box of reference queries dated from the 1940s to the 1980s. There are some real gems in there including someone wanting to know what kind of apple Eve ate and someone else who wanted to know if one needed a camel to cross the desert in the western U.S.
And since we are on the subject of librarians, how about a short story: In the House of the Seven Librarians. It is a coming-of-age story about Dinsy, raised in an almost sentient library since she was a baby by seven librarians who may or may not be alive. Enjoy!
Filed under: Books
It’s long but worth it. Special appearances by : Mrs. Patmore, Daisy, Lady Mary, Lord Grantham, Mr. Carson, Mrs. Hughes, Anna, Mrs. Crawley, and the Dowager Countess (aka Maggie Smith)
Filed under: Miscellaneus
Tagged: Downton Abbey
Follow the yellow brick road
The leaves on Melody Maple have all turned golden and after a beautiful week of sun, we had a cold, windy, rainy Friday that blew all the leaves off the tree. Autumn leaves on trees are definitely gorgeous, but if you ask me, the show isn’t quite over even after they have fallen off. When I walked up to my house after work Friday, I couldn’t help but smile at the sight of my leaf strewn sidewalk. It’s like a piece of the Yellow Brick Road came from Oz to take up temporary residence in front of my house.
There are still plenty of leaves on trees though. The city-planted boulevard tree, a different kind of maple than the one in my yard, still has its leaves. It is currently half green and half red-orange. My apple trees still have their leaves too, though not as many as before Friday. Apples are not striking autumn trees. Their leaves mostly turn a pale yellow and drop off but the entire tree is never yellow at once. The leaves do their thing on an individual basis and almost as soon as they change color they fall so the tree is mostly always green with the leaf density getting fewer and fewer until they have all fallen.
Of the asters that were blooming last week only the aromatic one is still going. The mum
Leave and bluestem grass
is still going too. And in the herb spiral, there are a few calendula that the frost did not kill and they are valiantly blooming yellow and orange.
Today Bookman and I spent some time in the vegetable garden pulling out dead tomato plants, squash, beans and various other things. In spite of the frost we had, the weather here remains unusually warm for this time of year and one of the tomatoes I pulled out was resprouting as were a good many of the beans. It is really kind of crazy. I don’t recall an October since I’ve lived in Minnesota that has been this warm.
We harvested most of our Brussels sprouts and had them for dinner tonight. Neither of us has ever had Brussels sprouts before. At their mention I have only ever heard people say, yuck! There are so few people I have encountered who say yum that they seem to be the freaks. But over the past few years I have had enough people tell me that I had to try them and the plants themselves are really odd looking, I decided fine, this year I’ll give them a try. And you know what? They are delicious! Bookman liked them too. That means I’ll be planting them again next year. And next year I will know they need a lot more room to grow than I gave them this year. Success!
We have not tried the okra we grew yet. We didn’t get enough at any one time to do something with so we would chop them up and put them in the freezer. This winter Bookman is planning on using them in a stew or two. When he does, I’ll try to remember to let you know what we thought.
We did not work on the chicken coop today, instead we chose to work in the garden. We did spend some time figuring out a piece of building engineering that had us baffled. We both have the day off from work tomorrow to celebrate our wedding anniversary and plan to make a trip to the hardware store to get the brackets we decided we need. Then we have plans to work on the coop in the afternoon since the day is supposed to be sunny and mild.
As we were out in the garden today I noticed the bees have all gone. There was one lonely bee on the hyssop that is normally abuzz with activity. No butterflies about either. Or mosquitoes! The chickadees and juncos are here in abundance now. We get the dark-eyed juncos here and I do love them ever so much. They are such pleasingly round birds.
The squirrels are quite enjoying the extended warm weather, using it to fatten up even more. This week they took the opportunity to fatten up on the pumpkins that were still in my garden! We had about ten of them and the squirrels ate five. Bookman saw them at it one morning before he left for work and ran out and rescued the ones they had not gotten to yet. Not only am I disappointed about the squirrel raid of the pumpkin patch, but next year I am going to have pumpkin coming up all over the garden from them dropping the seeds everywhere. We got enough for a few pies and other pumpkin goodies, just not as much as we were looking forward to! @%*$#& squirrels!
My smart trainer arrived in the mail during the week. Just in time too because while I could have bundled up for an outdoor ride yesterday, it was gray and blustery and damp from the rain the day before and would not have been any fun. So I set up my trainer and had a great time!
My trainer is a Cyclops Powerbeam Pro with ANT+. What that means is that I plug the ANT+ usb dongle into my computer and it talks to the trainer. There are a number of cycling sites that can be integrated with a smart trainer. They show you video and tell your trainer to increase resistance when you are going uphills and make it easier when going downhill. They measure your energy output and miles and all that. It is pretty nifty.
In addition to the trainer I got a special trainer tire so I don’t wear out my road tire. I took my road tire off Astrid’s back wheel and put on the new one. Since my double flat over the summer I am getting pretty good at the whole tire thing! It didn’t take long to do at all. I did have to borrow Bookman’s thumbs though to get the last bit of tire pushed into the wheel rim, but other than the brief assist, the tire was all my doing as was changing the wheel quick release mechanism for the trainer compatible one. It took both of us to get the bike hooked into the trainer, Bookman lifted while I kneeled on the floor and directed the parts to where they needed to connect.
The cycling program I am using with the trainer is a new one called Zwift. It basically turns indoor cycling into a kind of video game. Riders get experience points, and special prizes for accomplishments and when you level up you get access to more customization goodies like a new jersey for your avatar or a new bike.
As you ride around there are three competitive segments on the course for which you can get points and a special jersey to wear until someone else beats your time. There is a big hill for which you can get king/queen or the mountain, a sprint segment, and an overall best lap time. The course is about 6 miles/9 kms.
Queen of the Mountain!
It is so much fun! I did 9 laps yesterday and even though the virtual miles were less than I have been riding on the road, I worked harder and my legs were really tired. I was really good for about five laps and then I began feeling tired. I started telling myself I could take it easy, I didn’t have to sprint. But then the sprint segment would roll up in front of me and the timer would flash up on the screen with the best time, my best time and where I was at that moment in comparison and gosh darn it, I had to try!
The sport of cycling is predominantly men. There are more and more women joining to be sure, but the crowd is mostly male. It is that way on the roads when I am biking around and it is that way on Zwift. The plus side of that is, while the men on the Zwift discussion boards complain about never being able to get close to wearing the KOM jersey because there are too many better riders out there, I, a newbie to the sport, got to wear the QOM jersey twice yesterday. I did not get a green sprint winner jersey. I suck at sprinting. Nor did I get to wear the orange best lap jersey. But because there are so few women, I think of the 250 people riding in Zwift while I was on about eight were women, I have a chance at those jerseys and I find that highly motivating.
So it appears my outdoor biking is done for the season. But Zwift and my new smart trainer look like they will be an excellent indoor alternative. Yay!
Filed under: biking
I almost gave up reading Foragers, Farmers and Fossil Fuels: How Human Values Evolve by Ian Morris because his whole thesis just seemed so anecdotal and far-fetched that I spent much of my reading time grumbling. But I kept going because after he makes his arguments, he has four other people, one of them Margaret Atwood, respond to his thesis. He then follows up the critiques with another chapter of his own in which he answers the criticism. I recently likened reading the book to a carrot and a stick with the book being a stick and Atwood at the end being the carrot to keep me going.
In the end I am glad I kept going and not just for Atwood. The book provides quite a lot of food for thought. Before it became a book though, it was a series of lectures, the Tanner Lectures delivered in 2012 and sponsored by Princeton University’s Center for Human Values. The criticism at the end is in response to the lectures. Morris did, of course, do some revising and expanding of the lectures in order to turn them into a book, but I don’t think it was much and believe most of it was in order to facilitate the change in genre from oral lecture to written book.
I don’t want to and can’t go into explicit detail of Morris’s theory, it is simply too complex. If my summary is either intriguing or infuriating enough, however, I recommend reading the book.
To the theory.
Morris argues that the core reason for changes in human values is the manner in which we capture energy. He measures energy in kilocalories which means his argument is very much based in how we get enough food and calories to sustain ourselves. And how we obtain these calories has a direct impact on our values. The main values Morris focuses on are violence, wealth and gender equality but he frequently points out that it is our entire values system he is talking about not just these few.
The book is broken up into three sections with each one centering around the means of energy capture the nicely alliterative title suggests. First we were foragers and hunters. These early societies were prone to violence while at the same time being rather egalitarian when it came to wealth and gender roles. Yes, women tended to be the gatherers and men the hunters, but both modes of obtaining food were just as important so neither gender had much power over the other. Since people moved around a lot, accumulating wealth in the form of property or possessions was not important. A lot of the time, people didn’t even have to work that hard in order to feed the group, not that it was an easy life, but it was not one in which people spent all day working. However, because the amount of energy that could be captured through foraging was limited, groups were small, settlements were few and far between, and large settlements approaching anything like a town were rare.
That is until people discovered farming. Farming required a big trade-off, a lot more work was needed but the amount of kilocalories skyrocketed. More food meant better health and longevity which meant people also reproduced more. Farming requires you stay in one place which meant villages and towns and cities. It also meant hierarchy became valuable. Wealth accumulation became possible. Violence meted out be individuals became discouraged and laws were written. Gender roles became more separated, more enforced, and women were relegated to the house and the kitchen. Because farming required huge labor inputs in order to obtain huge energy output, slavery and forced labor were considered acceptable. Human population exploded, cities expanded, empires were possible and a whole lot of other things too that people had never cared about before. Eventually, however, the energy available from farming hit a ceiling it could not expand past.
But then northern Europe discovered fossil fuels. It is the form of energy capture that has allowed the Earth’s population to grow past 7 billion. It is what has allowed us to have smartphones and computers and cars, cheap heating and cooling for our houses. Huge cities. It is what has allowed the United States to move from 90% of the labor force being farmers to just 2%. Morris argues that it is a major factor in our ability to end slavery worldwide, for the major drop in individual violence and, bloody as the twentieth century was, state violence. It is also the biggest factor in changes of gender equity and wealth equity.
But now we are coming to the end of fossil fuels, what is next? Morris doesn’t claim to know but he offers a few possibilities that range from complete societal collapse to a nearly utopian post-human future. Depending on what happens at the upcoming climate change talks in Paris, I’m hedging for something in between and hoping it is closer to the utopian side of things than the complete collapse option.
The criticisms of Morris’s arguments were interesting for the most part. Atwood looked ahead to the future and suggested if society does indeed collapse we will almost immediately return to a foraging set of values. As you would expect, her short piece was witty and thoughtful.
Another of the critics was a philosopher and I have no idea what she was going on about most of the time talking about real values and ideal values and what are values anyway? Another criticism came from a historian who disagreed with the way Morris approached history. And the fourth critique came from a classicist who accused Morris of operating from a capitalist bias that skewed everything and invalidated all.
At this point in my reading I was not as strongly against Morris’s argument as I was in the beginning but I still disagreed. After I read his thoughtful and well-argued rebuttal, I am wondering if maybe, just maybe, he is actually on to something. I am not sure what it is that swayed me, it might be that his writing style in the rebuttal had more personality while still being rigorously argued. It could be that in answering the criticism of the others, he made is thesis more rounded and clear. It is possible that since Atwood didn’t rip him to shreds or at least leave claw marks, I was more lenient on him.
Whatever the case, whether is argument is right or wrong I have no idea and I am not sure that it is something that can actually be proved one way or the other. What I can say is that Morris has worked out a well argued and thought provoking framework through which we can view the evolution of human values. And agree or disagree with him, the more frameworks we have for viewing and discussing these kinds of things, the better in my opinion. Because really, these frameworks are about telling the story of human development and one story does not tell us everything but it can tell us something.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Ian Morris
, Margaret Atwood
I came upon two articles today about libraries both written by people who are not librarians but both still manage to have an opinion on what libraries should do and be and the work librarians should perform. It is one thing to be involved in your community public library, working with them to provide the sorts of services the community wants. It is another thing to feel as though you can make blanket statements about what libraries should and should not do when you yourself are not a librarian, do not work in a library, and have no real idea about the sorts of things librarians have been talking about for years. The assumptions non-librarians make about the knowledge, skill and future planning — or lack thereof — of librarians is astonishing. Would anyone dare tell a surgeon or a mechanic how to do their jobs? But yet there seems to be a set of careers, mostly dominated by women (teaching is probably number one) that people, many of whom are of the male persuasion, who have no or little specialization in the field, feel like they have every right to say what libraries should be doing.
It’s really frustrating.
Reinventing the Library by Alberto Manguel is a pretty decent article as far as they go. He recognizes that
Librarians today are forced to take on a variety of functions that their society is too miserly or contemptuous to fulfill, and the use of their scant resources to meet those essential social obligations diminishes their funds for buying new books and other materials. But a library is not a homeless shelter (at the St. Agnes library in New York, I witnessed a librarian explaining to a customer why she could not sleep on the floor), a nursery or a fun fair (the Seneca East Public Library in Attica, Ohio, offers pajama parties), or a prime provider of social support and medical care (which American librarians today nonetheless routinely give).
And that being forced to function in these ways detracts from the core work of libraries: “to see that the collections remain coherent, to sift through catalogues, to help readers read, to read themselves.” For Manguel, libraries are and should remain all about the books.
The other article, a book review written by James Gleick on a book called BiblioTech by John Palfrey. Both express a fear that libraries are forgetting their core values in the face to the digital onslaught. Both recognize the skill of librarians in searching for and curating information. But yet they insist, “A transition to the digital can’t mean shrugging off the worldly embodiments of knowledge, delicate manuscripts and fading photographs and old-fashioned books of paper and glue.” And they are right and librarians care just as much about the physical “embodiments of knowledge” as they do the digital. However, trade-offs must be made. When the library has a database they pay $10,000 a year for to provide access to dozens of journals and they also have to pay sometimes hundreds of dollars a year for a single print journal and no one is using the print journal but people are using the digital one, the print subscription will be canceled. Libraries are nonprofit institutions that rely on the government to fund them and the government these days is rather stingy.
Manguel, Gleick and by extension, Palfrey, do have some valid points, however none of their points are new to librarians who have been discussing them and struggling with them for years. Yet they all make it sound as though their thoughts and opinions are new, that libraries, unanimously agreed to be extremely important, are somehow failing, that if librarians pay attention to their opinions everything will get better. As a librarian I resent that.
I do appreciate feedback and ideas and suggestions. I do think it is important to talk about libraries and the role of libraries in society in widely distributed media like the New York Times. I am glad when someone acknowledges the struggles libraries have with funding and filling needs that we should not have to fill. But I get really tired of people talking so much about what libraries are doing wrong and what they should be doing instead and how we need to operate in order to fulfill out cultural duties.
For once I’d like to see an article in a big daily about what libraries are doing right. Because libraries are doing lots of things right. My neighborhood public library branch is always busy and not just with people using the computers. When I go in to pick up my hold requests there are always people there browsing books and checking out books, reading books. The hold shelves are always stuffed full. It is a vital part of my neighborhood. Why doesn’t someone write about that?
Filed under: Books
I was out having a great time with Jeanette Winterson last night. Ok, maybe not with her personally, but I was in the audience and had a great seat and she even looked directly at me once! Bookman came too and has never read any of her books. He didn’t even know what she looked like and when she walked out on stage he cracked me up when he leaned over and said, She has Margaret Atwood hair! Winterson’s hair is not gray like Atwood’s but both have the same kind of curls and wear their hair about the same length with a similar style. I love their hair and I sometimes wish my loose, corkscrew tending curls were more like theirs. But I digress!
Winterson was at the University of Minnesota to deliver the autumn Esther Freier Endowed Lecture in Literature. Freier was first a student and then a professor at the U but not in the literature department. Nope, she was a chemist. But she loved the arts and was well aware that funding was hard to come by so when she died she left an endowment to the literature department that allows them to have two lectures a year and make it open to the public. How awesome is that?
Winterson’s lecture was titled “Reading as an Act of Rebellion.” If you have read anything she has written you will know she is funny and smart. In person she is that too but add personable and engaging and you will understand why at the end Bookman and I both wanted to yell, please keep talking because an hour is not long enough!
She ranged far and wide from the historical to the personal. She declared reading an extreme sport because one pits oneself with and against the best in literature.
The act of reading has through much of history been rebellious. Who was and was not allowed to read was controlled. Women weren’t allowed to do it and slaves certainly weren’t allowed. The more people read, the more they could think for themselves and those in power did not want to give up their power. When a person reads, and reads widely and diversely, it makes them one of the most threatening things in the world. Books can change the way we think and feel. Books show us multiple points of view. And while someone can see you reading and what you are reading, they cannot know what is going on in your head while you are reading. This makes you and reading dangerous.
Just like we talk about valuing biodiversity in nature, we should value biodiversity in reading. And we need to not just give it lip service and say “yay for diverse books!” We have to read those books too. Books are not meant to comfort, though they can do that. Books should expand the world for us and yes, even make us feel uncomfortable. A book that makes you feel uncomfortable is giving you an opportunity to think and experience and learn something.
Truth and fact are not the same thing, Winterson remarked. Simplification is a lie. We have language to help us make sense of complexity. Reading is great training in both diversity and complexity. The more reading you do, the more language you have and language is power. Just ask Malala Yousafza, Salman Rushdie, and those who work at Charlie Hebdo.
For the most part, Winterson said, we don’t have to ban or burn books in the west these days because people are just too busy to read them. There is no reason to get worked up over what people are reading when no one is reading to begin with. Winterson is also not a fan of ebooks because if you can’t see the books, if they’re virtual, how do you know they exist? Give her the solid book on the bookshelf. That way nothing is hidden. Amazon can’t erase it from all the Kindles. Can you imagine, she asked, if Amazon came to your door and took your copy of 1984 instead of making it magically disappear from your ereader?
Creativity and imagination is the birthright of everybody. We don’t have to apologize for art and culture nor do we have to explain. The mind is not a luxury.
Such a fantastic lecture! I am so grateful I got to go. I left feeling buoyant and excited, ever so proud to be a reader and determined to be as rebellious as I possibly can.
Filed under: Books
Tagged: Jeanette Winterson
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It was a cool, rainy week and we even had snow mixed in with the rain one day. And sleet. We had sleet too. But in spite of the snow and sleet, temperatures remain above freezing. There are still trees with leaves. This week temperatures are going to hover around 60F/15C with a few days forecast to be warmer. It’s really crazy how mild it has been. In the just over twenty years I have lived in the Twin Cities, I don’t recall it ever being this warm at this time of the year even when there was an el niño.
With this long mild autumn, the sorrel has regrown and is looking even nicer than it did in the spring. Bookman has plans to make some pesto to enjoy with dinner one night this week. The chard is still going too. And that’s really it, nothing else in the garden any longer except the turnips which will also be made into dinner sometime during the week. If I had known it was going to be so mild this late I would have planted some late season peas and radishes. Too late now. I will have to work on my psychic abilities for next year though so I don’t miss another wonderful opportunity.
Bookman had the entire week off from work and had planned on working on the chicken coop. That did not happen because of the rain. Today, however, was quite comfortable so we spent several hours outside working on it.
We gave up trying to prime all the boards before building with them because it kept raining or was going to rain and they never had time enough for the paint to dry. It isn’t a big deal really, the wood is all treated. The primer is so we can paint the coop later and is easier to get on when you just have a flat board to paint and no corners and angles. But if we continued painting we were never going to be able to start building and building was more important. So.
We got all the upright supports done, the top cross supports for the walls and roof, and the supports for the coop floor. Next step is to figure out how to frame the roof. It’s coming along and we are having fun making it and feeling rather proud of ourselves especially since we have never done anything like this before. Now that we are really making progress, it is beginning to feel like we really are going to have chickens.
Eventually the weather will get too cold for us to work outside and then we will have to start thinking about where the chickens will live indoors. We will be getting them in March as chicks just a few days old and they will have to live in the house under a heat lamp for a while and even when they don’t need the lamp anymore they will still need to live indoors until they get all their feathers and it is warm enough for them to safely move outside, probably around the end of May. So they need a place to live that is big enough and safe from the sure to be curious Waldo and Dickens. We have a few months to get that worked out.
Since there isn’t much to do in the garden any longer, I have picked Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek back up. I wanted to share a thought that caught my attention:
beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them. The least we can do it try to be there.
Biking until I’m nothing but bones
I am very much enjoying riding Astrid indoors hooked up to the smart trainer. This week for Halloween, the folks at Zwift had a little fun and and turned all the avatars into skeletons. We all had little scarves on our heads that matched the color and pattern of our jerseys when we had flesh on our bones. They also added jack-o-lanterns on the roadside throughout the course. It was pretty fun. I wonder if we might all get Santa hats for Christmas? Or maybe our bikes will turn into reindeer?
Anyway, they recently added structured workouts as a beta feature. The one workout everyone is trying is the FTP, functional threshold power. It’s a “test” to find out how much power per weight you can maintain for twenty minutes of going all out. They structure it so you get ten minutes of warmup at a cadence of 90 rpm and then you do about twenty minutes of riding at various watts (power is measured in watts), and then you do twenty minutes all out with nice messages telling things like, you are halfway there if you aren’t struggling you should try to go up ten watts. At first I thought, no way but I’ll try. And I did it and it was hard but not as hard as I thought it would be.
After the twenty minutes is over there is ten minutes of cool down riding. Then you get your FTP. I was hoping for 160 but got 157. It will serve as a baseline for training. I will check back with the FTP workout in three months and see if I have improved at all. It’s my understanding that FTP works better than maximum heart rate for training purposes. I will have to do some research to figure out how to use that number and improve it.
I did read a really good book published by Bicycling magazine called The Bicycling Big Book of Cycling for Women. It has all kinds of general stuff about cycling like the different types of riding and the kinds of bikes and lots of good stuff specific to women like core/strength training exercises, nutrition, and how our hormones affect performance because they do and it isn’t our imagination. Very informative I thought. It’s a good book for novice to intermediate level cyclists, is written by a woman, and is encouraging and motivating as well as fun.
You know you have fallen in love with a sport when you read books about it. I’m pretty sure I’m a goner.
Filed under: biking
Tagged: Annie Dillard