Book Corner 2023.15

by Kurt Vonnegut

Kurt Vonnegut is really special. He wrote this little slice of his life in 2005, two years before that life would end.

“I think that novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.” Agreed… I like either books written in the past, or modern books; people who write new books but place them in the near-distant past I think are just trying to avoid the way we behave with technology.

Speaking of technology, the best part was where he describes how he used to send things out to be typed, by the mail, using a new envelope he would buy for the purpose at the nearby stationary store; all the people he would interact with. He had a crush on the post office counter girl, and purports that she would do things like frizz her hair or wear black lipstick just to entertain her clientele. I like that little appreciation for how we are all part of a big promenade, here to entertain our neighbors and be entertained in our turn.

After his lovely vignette about the post office, he concludes, “Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We are dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go out and do something.”

Finally a quote from his son: “Father, we are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

Book Corner 2023.14

by Charles King, circa 1913

Complete Tales of Beatrix Potter

I will get through this whole review without using the word “charming.”

Beatrix Potter is a hero of mine. She was a talented illustrator who wanted to do nature drawings for scientific journals. Her claim to fame ended up being Peter Rabbit. This plus 21 other tiny little books of tales served as my bedtime reading this week. We found a complete boxed set at a used book store. While I was familiar with Peter Rabbit, had read Beatrix’s bio, and named a goat after her, I had never read the complete tales until now.

It was a joy. Apart from the fact that the animals wear clothing, the illustrations and even many of the tales are very true to life. Peter Rabbit looks and feels very bunnylike indeed after losing his shoes and coat, lost and disoriented and damp from hiding in the watering can. The dogs, mice, badgers, frogs, “puddleducks”, hens, piglets, etc. inhabiting this world, while engaging in people-like pursuits, keep their respective animal natures about them. One of my favorite tales involved two mice ransacking a dollhouse. After trying and failing to eat the tiny plaster food, they commence making a general mess and then spiriting various objects down their mousehole. Very mousey. Next morning, the dolls just stare and smile.

Beatrix lost her fiance tragically during a long engagement insisted upon by her parents, to whom she felt duty but little more. When they had both passed away, and she had inherited and earned money enough, she left the city she never liked and bought herself a farm among her beloved lakes. She came to life. And she was instrumental in preserving the local breed of sheep. I just felt like putting in a plug of why she’s my hero.

Book Corner 2023.13

by Peggy Ornstein

Basically, this woman tries all of my hobbies.

Specifically, she shears, cards, spins, dyes, and knits “the world’s ugliest sweater.”

She does this during pandemic times – and megadrought times. I can’t believe she undertook dyeing with a drought going on – surely negates all her other attempts at being a socially conscious crafter.

There’s way too much digression. For example, a chapter on indigo treats us to two pages on Joni Mitchell’s BLUE album. I don’t like when books do this – purport to be about a certain topic, then stray. I didn’t sign up to read about your affinity for Joni Mitchell or what you did during the pandemic or your family. I signed up to read about shearing, spinning, and dyeing.

So, sticking to the topics at hand:

Shearing isn’t very popular as a lifestyle choice because there are “many other ways to make a living that don’t require bending over for eight hours a day while an ungulate kicks you in the face.” Well put! In another blast of the reality of shearing, a sheep comments on her technique by letting loose a “gigantic mound of poop pellets” during the process. Shearing: well captured. Onward!

Carding and spinning chapters weren’t so interesting, so let’s skip to the dyeing. Acid dyes for home use might as well not exist; Author seems to think she has to do natural dyeing. Thus, the reader “might notice I mention yellow a lot.” Confirmed: trying to dye with natural materials you find in your immediate environment means you had better like yellow. Natural dyeing: spot-on! Next!

Knitting. Author undertakes a sweater even though she knows it would have been wiser to choose a shawl or cowl pattern. One small reason she chose the unwiser path is that she admits to “never, under any circumstances, wearing either of those garments.” Yes – let’s face it. Shawls and cowls are just not normal wardrobe options. They’re things knitters like because they are easy and/or use little yarn.

I was put off by Author’s mathophobia. Mathophobia is tiring to read about. “Even writing the phrase ‘set of ratios’ gives me a headache.” Po widdle bebby. Math is hard!!

BUT… Author wins my love again when she correctly identifies the kinship of knitting with programming! Knitting is coding – “with knits and purls replacing the standard binary 0s and 1s.” Knitting patterns are programs (this is me talking). Garbage in, garbage out. Follow the steps, get a repeatable result.

Certainly could not resist this book and hope it encourages just one person out there to try their hand at – almost said ‘sheep-to-shawl’ crafting, but let’s make it ‘sheep-to-article-you’ll-actually-wear’ crafting.

Book Corner 2023.12

by Jane Austen

This was a re-read, of course.

My new impressions this time were how insufferable Mary Musgrove was. I always remembered her as merely a bit of a whiner.

The BBC adaptation that came to theaters in America in September 1995 always sticks with me. Of course, I don’t remember the very date we saw it, but September or October would have been likely, as Maggie & I would have run right out for it. Most memorable was that Xopher came with us, and didn’t hate it. He was different then.

Book Corner 2023.11

by Kathryn Ma

This was a fun little story. Shelley is a young man who comes to San Francisco from China with dreams of success. Everything goes rather poorly from the start. He had been told his uncle, who will be hosting him, owns a big fabulous department store; but the truth is the family used to own a little corner grocery, but no longer. Furthermore, his uncle and aunt stick him in a tiny spare room and kick him out after two weeks. Hunger and homelessness threaten. But Shelley is positively buoyant through it all. He makes himself useful to his uncle’s elderly father and endears himself to the little boy of a family friend. He endures heartbreak and trickery. And then it’s all tied up in a nice bundle.

Book Corner 2023.10

by J. Bradford DeLong

I really enjoyed this. It’s a 500+-page economic history of the years 1870 – 2010. It got really exciting in the WWI chapter, nearly every sentence packing a punch. Here’s just one I bookmarked, about how just 80 years separated Croats & Serbs fighting together as blood brothers in WWI and the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 90s: “To fight one set of wars at the start of the twentieth century to unify Serbs and Croats, and another set of wars at the end of that century to ‘ethnically cleanse’ Serbs of Croats, and Croats of Serbs, seems among the sickest jokes history ever played on humanity, or, more causally accurate, humans ever played on history.”

The overall theme of this history is Hayek vs. Polyani. Friedrich Hayek, I was familiar with, but with Michael Polyani I was not. DeLong sums up Hayek (repeatedly – the book is not afraid to repeat its themes): “The market giveth, and the market taketh away; blessed be the name of the market.” Polyani, if I can summarize: nothing beats the free market for producing general prosperity, feeding technological progress, and allocating capital efficiently. However, people generally want more. They want some stability, some expectation they can keep their job, some fairness, etc. The market produces none of these things, which isn’t a bad thing or a good thing; it’s just not what the market does. Since people will persist in wanting these things, they will take action to make them happen, which is entirely reasonable. This struck me as one of those perspectives with a deep sense to it. Like when I turned away from libertarianism all those years ago. Freedom is great and important, but why should it trump other things that are also great and important? Like Haidt’s RIGHTEOUS MIND – empathy is great and important, but people have other pillars of morality. So, the market is great and important, but there are other things that maybe it doesn’t always trump.

Great food for thought, great history, great read.

Book Corner 2023.9

by John Baxter

Better than I thought it was going to be; because I thought it was going to be, “OMG, Paris is so freaking beautiful, this is beautiful, that’s beautiful, OMG Paris is so beautiful.” Yawn! It wasn’t that. It bounced around severely. It was kind of tied together by the author’s recounting of how he stumbled into a job giving walking tours of Paris; and some of the fun things he includes on his tours. I liked that all the chapters were super-short. I liked the amount of himself he put into the book – enough so you aren’t wondering who in the world is speaking to you; but not so much that it’s a Me-Me-Me book, which is also boring. Altogether, you’d think that I’d love it. Ultimately, though I hate to sound like an ugly American or a jaded snob, I went to Paris once and I wasn’t all that crazy about it. I prefer Italy.

Book Corner 2023.8

by Janet Malcolm

I’m not sure why I picked this up, except that it was essays, and I’m sure I thought, “Oh! I love essays”, some of them from the New Yorker and some from NYRB and I’m sure I thought, “Oh! Those will be quality.”

Maybe they were, but they were so very, very dated. I guess it was a nice walk down memory lane as we were reminded of the confirmation hearings for now-Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito, and Jon Stewart/Stephen Colbert’s march to restore sanity, etc.. But the essay about email – what a hoot. “As email’s novelty wears off and its limitations become clearer, we will revert to the telephone…” Ha ha ha!

Essays in the beginning of the book tended to profile people with some unusual vocation or avocation, such as concert pianist or running a rare-print book shop. These weren’t terribly gripping. I have to admit I skipped one about a classic music radio show.

Book Corner 2023.7

by Amy Liptrot

This is about the author’s alcoholism. She’s from Orkney and returns there for a year when she’s in her 30s or thereabouts and her life has been destroyed by alcohol. Orkney, off the northern tip of the Scottish mainland, is small and isolated to begin with, and she spends a winter on one island that is particularly small and isolated, living alone in a cottage. This is the part of the book that most appealed to me, having Hermit Envy. The descriptions of Orkney only made sense to me because I’ve seen Iceland.

Book Corner 2023.6

by Charles Wheelan

While many of the examples are woefully outdated (published 2002), the concepts are purely timeless. I laughed out loud a couple of times. Well, sometimes because of the outdated examples (“I recently visited a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado, that was experimenting with a self-serve checkout line.”); but sometimes because he was just really (deliberately) funny.

And sometimes because I raise Angora goats, and the great mohair subsidy of 1955 that lasted for about 35 years was one of his great examples of the power of organized interests to get legislation on the books that is a boon for the interests but way outlives its usefulness and isn’t big enough for any non-interested party to get worked up about enough to revoke. Although it seems some people got worked up about the mohair subsidy eventually, it just took 35 years. (We got into the hobby less than a decade too late to sit back and make a tidy living off of it.)

And sometimes I felt personal pride, while reading the whole chapter on the Federal Reserve. While it would be an overstatement to say we’ve forgotten 9/11, we’ve forgotten plenty of the details of those first weeks, months, and year of aftermath (again, publication date of this was 2002). “On September 11, 2001, hours after the terrorist attacks on the United States, the Federal Reserve issued the following statement: ‘The Federal Reserve System is open and operating. The discount window is available to meet liquidity needs.'” This was his example of simple statements speaking loudly. A simple, calming statement, with not so calm people behind the scenes doing not so simple things to make it so.

What was fantastic about this book was that it had no ax to grind. It’s facts and concepts. You judge. This is what government intervention can sometimes do for good. This is what it can sometimes do for ill. Know the basic economics presented in this book first; then maybe you can hold forth with an informed opinion.