Thursday, June 11, 2009

pile of reading

Swallowdale (1931) Arthur Ransome
I remember a friend of the family (was it the Averas?) gave my brother and me the gift of Swallows and Amazons, the cover of which featured some kids gathered around a campfire dreaming of battling each other over rowboats, or small sailboats. I remember not finding it very attractive. But at some point our mother, who would read to us each night (she got us all the way through the Lord of the Rings trilogy), picked up Swallows and Amazons and I was surprised. I loved it! For a long time I didn’t know Arthur Ransome had written several sequels. When I did find that out enough time had passed I didn’t remember much in detail about Swallows and Amazons so figured I ought to reread it before I turned to a sequel. Well, here I am, 43 years old, and I just reread Swallows and Amazons. Can’t say whether or not I enjoyed it as much this time as the first but I did enjoy it, and the Claremont branch of the Berkeley Public Library where I work has several of the sequels. I have just begun Swallowdale.

How Sex Works: why we look, smell, taste, feel, and act the way we do (2009) Dr. Sharon Moalem
I like pop science books. Some are better than others, of course. There are times I feel like I’m reading about the behavior of middle class college students – so many studies are conducted at universities, and students are cheap and readily available experimental subjects. The more pop science books you read the more you find yourself wondering if this mish-mash of facty material actually collages into a revealing picture or we just pretend it does. I brought this one home because Moalem includes gay people (older books science books on sex either ignored gay sex or disparaged it; many contemporary books treat it rather like a footnote – yeah, gay sex exists, and it’s not sick or evil but, like, I care?). “As any woman who has explored her sexual responsiveness knows,” Moalem says, then interjects a parenthetical before preceding, “(and any man or woman who has explored it with her knows as well), female orgasms come in many different shapes and styles.” Or woman, huh?

Enduring Seeds: Native American agriculture and wild plant conservation (1989) Gary Paul Nabhan
As I push through the collection, weeding out damaged books and books that have been barely touched in the years of sun-fading residence on public racks, I do think to myself fairly often, Looks like a book worth reading. Mostly I talk myself out of checking them out – got plenty to read, thanks! But Enduring Seeds touched on more than one enduring interest – the interaction between animals and plants, traces of Native American history, and the (fragile?) foundations of what we take for granted. I’m not far into it, and already it’s depressing. Written twenty years ago the text anticipates widespread devastation of the environment. Maybe the intervening decades haven’t been as diastrous as anticipated. But I don’t think an author writing a book like this today would be optimistic.

The American Reader: words that moved a nation (2000) edited by Diane Ravitch
This is a selection of poetry, essays, and speeches from early American history to the present. Includes Benjamin Franklin aphorisms, Emily Dickinson poems, Woody Guthrie songs, etc. Just read Ravitch’s severe 4-page edit of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, and liked it better than the long version.

The Complete Poems (1981) Anne Sexton
Years ago I read Sexton’s poems in the original books, then bought this complete edition. I enjoyed the first reading and wanted some day to revisit the experience. Doing that. I prefer Sexton’s later messier verse to her early tightly controlled stuff.

Tristes Tropiques (1955) Claude Levi-Strauss, translated by John & Doreen Weightman
Levi-Strauss was an influential anthopologist. I was assigned a chapter of this book in a class in college. I didn’t have time or energy to read more than that. But I hung onto the book. Reading it now, slow, though I like it. Levi-Strauss does surprising stuff like devote five pages to a description of sunset at sea: “[A]t each new stage in its fall, one or other of its rays would pierce the opaque mass [of clouds] or would find its way through along a path which, at the moment when the beam of light appeared, cut the obstacle into a pile of circular sectors, different in size and luminous intensity. At times, the light would be withdrawn, as if a fist had been clenched and the cloudy mitten would allow no more than one or two stiff and gleaming fingers to appear. Or an incandescent octopus would move out from the vaporous grottoes and then there would be a fresh withdrawal.”

The New Yorker May 21, 2007
From the Michael Ryan poem: “Watching you [ghost of dad], / aluminum softball bat drooping like a penis [in my hand], // I’m a cartoon of hurt …”

Scientific American June 2005
The search for extra solar planets continues to find ‘em!

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