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The Address Book

I didn’t know exactly what to expect from a book all about addresses, but I was still disappointed. I feel it lacked focus. I mean, it was all over the map. HA HA HA

I was pulled in by the story of the efforts to give everyone in West Virginia an address – how hard it was to find people, as apparently roads don’t have names outside of a few major cities. And darned if the guy whose job it was to name all the roads didn’t dang run out of names long before he was through!

I think my favorite quote was about some elderly Chinese immigrants who referred to streets that their new tenant didn’t recognize. “Mulberry Street, with its many funeral homes, had turned into Dead Person Street… Division Street was Hatsellers Street, Rutgers Street was Garbage Street, and Kosciuszko Bridge, named after a Polish leader who fought in the American Revolutionary War, somehow became ‘the Japanese Guy Bridge.'”

I’m gonna call it that from now on. (  )

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Floating Coast by Bathsheba Demuth

I am so glad I read this. I don’t have any particular interest in the Bering Strait, but this wasn’t a typical history. Demuth is an exquisitely thoughtful writer. Her “environmental history” is what I would call spiritual.

The book is not devoid of historical facts and narratives. Frankly, much of it could even be a bit of a slog. In chronicling “Beringia”, the land masses which border the Bering Strait, Demuth covers both USA and USSR history. After a while, reading about the fox farming and reindeer farming booming, then crashing, then booming; the quotas on whales being this high, then that low, then this high again… put me into a lull.

But when Demuth is poetic, she is sublime. Most of these moments came towards the beginning and towards the end. Tastes:

“[T]he world is not what we make of it; it is part of what makes us: our flesh and bones, and also our inclinations and hopes.”

“An ecosystem is the aggregate of many species’ habits of transformation, their ways of moving energy from its origin in the sun across space & condensing it over time. To be alive is to take a place in a chain of conversions.”

“We all live in more than one time… The evidence is all around us, in the layered world: a mossy, decaying mission store in Gambell, built near an ancient whale-butchering place, across from a row of tidy new homes… [A] house with Soviet concrete walls, but a roof made of walrus hide so fresh, it smelled.”

Finally:

“Fossil fuels freed the use of energy from human toil, allowing human history to seem separate from the rest of time… This made possible a new idea of liberty, released from the constraints of the matter that made us, and from the precariousness of being.”

That does sum up for me where we find ourselves.  )

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First: Sandra Day O’Connor

You know when there is no Book Corner for a while, I’m reading something heavy.  Either that, or sampling around and unable to settle on anything.  This time it was was something relatively heavy.

I’m afraid the first half of her life dragged for me – too much detail. And Thomas seems to emphasize especially in the first half her conservative, “Junior League,” “family-first” demeanor; when I looked up an interview with her on You Tube to remind myself how she really looked and talked, her directness and sharpness came as a stark contrast to the Sandra he had depicted for me.

The book picked up and things started swinging when she joined the Supremes. The copious detail was now welcome rather than tedious.

I already knew the sad ending to her story, having read Jeffrey Toobin’s THE NINE years ago, but it was even more heart-wrenching to read here. In short, O’Connor left the court while still in her prime, with her husband succumbing to Alzheimer’s, for both love of and duty towards him. Within months, he sunk lower than what she could deal with alone. She had to put him in a home. Top it off, her longtime friend (and sometime college boyfriend!), Chief Justice William Rehnquist, passed away around the same time.

While she would never again be as powerful a figure, in such a challenging and rewarding and influential a role, as she was as an active SCOTUS Justice, O’Connor succeeded for a while in finding true fulfilment spearheading efforts to teach civics to middle school children. You can still see the fruits of her labor online at http://www.icivics.org Today, Justice O’Connor is still with us, 90 years old as of this writing (born 1930), but suffering dementia herself.

Sad all around. But admire her for her never-ending drive and her pragmatic jurisprudence. In stark contrast to Justices Scalia and Alito, who believed that law should be treated like a catechism, O’Connor seemed to realize that we are all “just muddling along,” in the words of one of her clerks quoted here. “It was, wait a minute, we’re not doing this as an intellectual exercise. We’re doing this to run society. It’s just us people running things.”

Try to take heart that we had people like Sandra Day O’Connor “running things” for a while, and could one day again.  )

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This Is Big by Marisa Meltzer

Chapters that offer the biography of WW founder Jean Nidetch alternate with the author’s own “My Year of Doing WW” and meditations on being fat and diet culture in general.

Nidetch was a self-described “Former Fat Housewife” from Queens who founded Weight Watchers International in the early 1960s. Meltzer doesn’t have an awful lot of material to work with, but makes the best of what she has; after Nidetch stepped down from the presidency after a decade or two, the second half of her life seemed kind of sad coda. She divorced, gambled, lost a 49-year-old son (tumor? addiction? the jury seems to be out). She never gained back the fat; yet here’s proof that thin is not sufficient to make for a happy life.

Meltzer’s own life musings are a cut above those found in many other of the “My Year of” genre. I love the scathing attacks on ‘wellness’ culture – dieting by another name; “such a performance of loving yourself, of health, of fun, of flattering angles and good light and tight cropping.” “Wellness has become an excuse for doing what was once considered superficial; under the banner of wellness, the same activities are important, necessary, maybe transformative.”

Reminds me of points made in Smash the Wellness Industry, a NYT editorial I clipped and still keep smushed in a journal.  My favorite line being, “Nobody is telling men they need to love their bodies to live full and meaningful lines.” It was really a “I could have had a V-8” head-knocking moment for me to read that.

My own wellness goals entail being so busy pursuing my fulfilling life that I honestly no longer notice my tummy or butt size. Note this is still in the ‘goal’ stage.  )

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Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan

Elisabeth is purported to be a former NYT journalist and published author of two books. Yet what we see is a foolish (gives away a HUGE sum of money to an obviously worthless sister), grossly immature woman (maybe I can just tell my husband [no spoiler] instead of the truth about how [no spoiler]). I really didn’t buy her as a successful adult in any realm.

The babysitter she hires, Sam, for her new baby, is a wide-eyed college senior in awe of everything and willing to see the best in everyone. She’s bowled over by the ‘peaceful vibe’ of Sam’s expensive home and lifestyle. She’s also got hero worship for the president of her college, and she’s buddies with all the Hispanic ladies she formerly worked with in the school cafeteria. Finally, she’s also engaged to and in love with a much older guy in London, Clive, with whom she’s had a whirlwind long-distance relationship.

I didn’t understand Clive or Sam’s enamorment with him. I guess the sex was really hot, though we are thankfully spared most details; and she’s young, so that’s probably all lit takes, but we never really see the appeal. The one thing Elisabeth ever gets right is her first impression of Clive: icky and wrong for Sam.

The plot of the book is our slow discovery of how low Elisabeth really will sink in her selfishness; how long it will take Sam to realize her idols are false; and what will happen with Clive. In the end I was disappointed that it wasn’t more interesting.  )

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Merchants of Truth by Jill Abramson

Jill Abramson offers a thorough overview of several major news organizations’ transition to the digital age, with a focus on four in particular: NYT, WaPo, BuzzFeed, and Vice.

This book is dense, with very few breaks in the very long chapters. Much was uninteresting to me, but I kept reading for the sake of the tidbits that offered me glimpses of what goes on behind the scenes to give me the news I consume every day.

I was least interested in Vice – the interests of its barely-legal male target demographic in no way coincide with my own. NYT & WaPo, OTOH, I read weekly and daily respectively, so those were the inside scoops I was really showing up for.  )

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The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar

I don’t know, I just didn’t really learn anything. The most exciting part was when she starts talking about the famous jam study, and how everybody seems to know about it but everybody gets it slightly wrong; and then she reveals that she should know because she’s the one who actually conducted the jam study. Mind blown!

[The jam study offered people a taste test of 24 different jams, then repeated the experiment with only 6 jams, and found that 24 jams attracted more attention but 6 jams resulted in more sales.]  )

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

This was amazing. “You got to go there to know there.”

Our protagonist Janie starts life at 17 with a brief loveless marriage to a good provider to satisfy her grandmother who raised her, but she only starts life for real when she’s pushing 40 and meets Tea Cake.

First, though, she runs off from the first husband to hook up with a big-talking passing stranger who’s going down to Florida to be a “big man” in an up-and-coming colored town. Big man he does become, and makes her the big woman; but that’s not who she wants to be.

After his death, when she’s pushing 40, another stranger appears to whisk her away – another sweet-talker, but this time, not someone who wants to be a big man, just an ordinary man. And at first he thinks he has to keep treating her like the big woman she’s become accustomed to being, but no, that’s not how it is at all. For the first time in her life Janie is loving and being loved, and she’s ready to live life. They move down south to the Everglades, to “the muck”, where Tea Cake is a farm laborer; and Janie dons overalls and works right beside him during the day, and parties with him at night, and thus do they live.

And the lesson is to live, and you can’t explain it or teach it to anyone else, because “You got to go there to know there.”

The writing was constantly blowing me away. Two quotes that I bookmarked:

“When the people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for others to look at and see, it was nice. The fact that the thought pictures were always crayon enlargements of life made it even nicer to listen to.”

And “It happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes. They plan and they fix and they do, and then some kitchen-dwelling fiend slips a scorchy, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans.” Isn’t that TOTALLY how it is!  )

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My Dark Vanessa

This was a disappointment. I was expecting a nuanced story about a teacher-student affair. But it was a story about abuse. None of the characters were likeable. I’m glad to be done with it.

I don’t think it benefited by all the going back-and-forth in time. We knew the climax well before the end; a little suspense would have improved the story. Towards the end there was an incident that I thought was going to give an interesting plot twist, but it went nowhere. Thus there was no satisfaction in reaching the end – except that I didn’t have to spend another evening with 100% dysfunctional Vanessa (does she NEVER have a happy or successful moment?) or icky Strane (just yuck, yuck, yuck).

Weird thing that annoyed me: the oddball one-syllable last names almost everyone had. One person’s last name was only two letters long. It was a strange affectation (and yes, I know I’m strange for noticing and getting annoyed by it).  )

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The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova

I got all the way to the end before I realized there was a glossary of poker terms there. THANX, KINDLE. Grr.

And I read basically the whole thing without really understanding even the rudimentary rules to Texas Hold ‘Em. But that’s OK! Because it’s not about the hands and how they went. It’s about… life.

Konnikova has written a fairly unique “my year of” style book. She decides she wants to master poker in a year. A lot of random things have gone wrong in her life at once, and somehow she feels that studying poker will help her learn to understand the role of random chance in life. What makes the book unique is not only that it actually takes her more than a year to do what she sets out to do (and she sticks with it anyway even though that “ruins” the premise); but that she injects very little extraneous detail about herself. Once in a while we get in on a conversation with her husband or mother. She seems to have no kids and live in Brooklyn, but she doesn’t dwell on either of those things. She doesn’t dwell on herself at ALL, except as a student of poker. It’s wonderful! She’s a journalist, and that may have something to do with it.

So basically, what we learn is, you gotta know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em, just like the song says. It’s so cliche, but I used to say it too; before I became more enamored of my Domino theory of life, I had a Card Game theory of life: there’s the hands you’re dealt, but then there’s how you play them. When my father was ill, every day felt like another really tough card. And I thought about the big areas of my life and how I’d played my cards, and there were some plays I was really proud of, some I’d always doubt… And I thought about how my brother was refusing to play these tough rounds at all. And it was a really helpful metaphor. And when I try to explain why the Kinks song “Better Things” was for so long the only thing that could cheer me up, I could only say it was something about the particular phrasing, “I know tomorrow you’ll find better things.” So many things are beyond our control – we just FIND them. And I was finding crappy things right now, but the law of averages implied that sooner or later I would surely find BETTER things. Those are the cards you’re dealt.

Oh wait, I was writing a book review. For Konnikova, it seems to come down to stoicism. She becomes successful when she can control her emotions and just play, play, play. She throws in some helpful quotations here and there, and the most appropriate seems to be from Kipling:

“If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster,
And treat those two impostors just the same…”

She has to learn that anyone can have either a triumph or a disaster through no fault of her playing (though she can certainly have a disaster through her own fault, too). Anyone can get lucky or unlucky. Successful pros just keep playing – and learning – and adjusting. While there’s LOTS and lots of poker, poker slang, and poker play-by-play along the way – the life lesson ultimately comes through.  )

 

Addendum: it’s high summer, with lengthy daylight, which does not lend itself to indoor computer work; hence the blog posts few & far between.  See you on the rainy days.