Monthly Archives: February 2020

Reading Aloud with My Sons

One of my sons recently asked me what I remember about reading to him and his little brother. So many memories! First, I should introduce my sons. They are now 29 and 35 years old, living hundreds of miles from home. My husband and I are delighted that they call/text frequently and visit when they can.

We read to our sons from the get-go. Their grandmother (hereinafter referred to as Granny) declared “Your child’s intellectual development is more important than diapers” and handed me a copy of Pat the Bunny. Almost no words, just textures. We read it to a frazzle. Granny could recite long selections of poetry and kept a statue of Shakespeare on her coffee table. Just being around her for a few days would double a young child’s vocabulary.

Like many families, we went through a LONG period of reading Goodnight Moon every night, sometimes twice. It’s so hypnotic! I wonder if anyone painted their child’s room dark green to match those pictures?

After Goodnight Moon came Dr. Seuss. I always had a fondness for To Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street, because I can remember when I first heard it in Grade One, in 1956! We still refer to certain weather conditions as “oobleck”.

The Chinaberry catalog had a big influence on our reading. I loved it! I just learned that Chinaberry is now defunct, having operated from 1982 to 2019. Sad, but not surprising. Books are so much more readily accessible now, and so are web sites that help a parent to choose.

Finn Family Moomintroll and the Brambly Hedge series were two favorites found through Chinaberry. The Moomintroll books consisted of whimsical stories and even more whimsical, very simple, black and white line drawings. Moomins are funny creatures, and their world is populated by other odd beings, like the Hattifatners, and some decidedly eccentric humans. All weird and strangely lovable… The Brambly Hedge books were almost the opposite, with bright, detailed watercolor illustrations of the imagined, anthropomorphized lives of bunnies and mice. Charming!

I never had much use for Mother Goose, but, goodness, how I loved The Space Child’s Mother Goose, written by Frederick Winsor and illustrated by Marian Parry! Should I regret that my older son went off to kindergarten chanting

 “Little Bo Peep has lost her sheep, and radar has failed to find them. They’ll all, face to face, meet in parallel space, preceding their leaders behind them”?

What about

“Flappity, floppity flip! The mouse in the Mobius strip! The strip revolved, the mouse dissolved, in a chronodimensional skip!”

Some kids just can’t resist a word like “chronodimensional”. My sons had amazing diction. There was no “baby talk” in our house.

Fast forward twenty plus years…my niece earned a degree in physics and astronomy from the University of North Carolina. What else to send, for a graduation gift, but a copy of The Space Child’s Mother Goose? That book will never get old.

Granny introduced us to a wonderful alternative to Mother Goose, namely The Peter Patter Book of Nursery Rhymes by Leroy Jackson and Blanche Fisher Wright (illustrator). Possibly this dates to 1918? All four of us can still recite “Jelly Jake and Butter Bill”, a long cautionary tale about gluttony. Warning – some political incorrectness turns up. Something about a Welshman and a thief…

Granny loved Jimmie Owl, the benevolent creature on the front of The Peter Patter Book (see above). At family reunions, she invited every child under age 8 to a Jimmie Owl Party, during which she read from the book and somehow received a phone call from Jimmie, telling where he had hidden candy for the kids.

As proof of my total insanity, let it be known that I read the The Lord of the Rings trilogy to my older son when he was 9 or 10. Not The Hobbit, which was read by Dad to each boy at about age 5. (Of course, they loved it!) No, the whole damned Ring trilogy. Whatever possessed me?! It took more than six months, and may have been our last big read together. After a while, Tolkien becomes monotonous – the language lacks variation and begins to plod. The story, of course, is simply wonderful.

My other totally off the wall reading project was First Light – The Search for the Edge of the Universe by Richard Preston. I think First Light was loaned to me by a physicist friend (Hal Taylor – RIP) and later I got a copy of the revised version and decided to read it to the boys. It’s a wonderful history of the Mount Palomar telescope, and full of thrilling (to me) science. Younger son generally fell asleep, but older son hung in there. One night, as I read about distance and time and the wonders of physics, I heard a plaintive voice… “if that’s the way things are, why do I have to go to school in the morning?” Does anyone know an answer to that? Did I make a mistake in sending my sons to school?

The same little voice once interjected itself as we were listening to Homer’s Illiad on tape (the wonderful recording by Derek Jacoby) in the car. Hector was rampaging around the walls of Troy, slashing with sword and disemboweling enemies, blood everywhere. “Are you sure I should be listening to this?”, asked my son. Well, at least we knew he was paying attention!

Some of our best reading took place in the car, using Books on Tape. Really, nothing beats Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories to counteract superhighway boredom, especially The Hound of the Baskervilles. We listened to Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi and several works of Rudyard Kipling, including Kim. 

By the time JK Rowling started to publish the Harry Potter books, my boys were reading on their own. We pre-ordered the books and sometimes squabbled over who got to read first. Later we discovered Philip Pullman‘s Dark Materials and Book of Dust. Still waiting for more!

Reading with my sons provided me with so much fun! I wish the same for every family I know.


Flaubert, Nabokov and Thomas Picketty– how did I get into such distinguished company??

I feel like I’m writing one of those essays for a college application. “If you could invite three authors to dinner…”

Let’s narrow this down to one book each:

  • Flaubert’s Madame Bovary
  • Nabokov’s Lectures on Literature (p. 125 to p. 178 on Flaubert)
  • Picketty’s Capital in the 21st Century

I decided to (re)read Madame Bovary because it was chosen for seminar discussion by my husband’s college alumni group. Also, we needed a long audiobook for the round trip drive to North Carolina.

Madame Bovary shows up on most lists of all time “great novels”. It’s regarded as a turning point in the development of the novel as a genre (Wikipedia). Flaubert wrote it in French in 1857. Professor and literary critic Nabokov, as fluent in French as in English (Russian was his cradle tongue), considers the translation he used while teaching at Wellesley and Cornell to be seriously flawed.

So what did I gain by reading Madame Bovary? It is so descriptive! Like watching a movie, or maybe a soap opera. It was originally released serially. The plot, set in rural France, is simple. Country doctor Charles Bovary marries Emma, the daughter of a patient. She yearns for a more exciting, romantic life. This starts with day dreams, moves on to a passionate but platonic friendship with a young clerk and then enters the realm of adultery with a rake from the local gentry. When that ends, she encounters the clerk again, and they begin a passionate affair. Emma begins borrowing money to support her lifestyle, and brings herself and her husband to financial ruin. Overwhelmed, she poisons herself with arsenic and dies in agony. Charles dies of grief, and their penniless daughter is sent to work in a factory.

Nabokov (1899 – 1977) wrote several novels, but his book Lectures on Literature (as well as Lectures on Russian Literature and Lectures on Don Quixote) is a compilation from classes he delivered at Cornell University. As such, it is not, perhaps, as polished as his novels. He analyzes Madame Bovary in therms of “structures…, thematic lines, style, poetry, and characters”. Nabokov asserts that only style and art matter in books.

One contemporary author who references Flaubert is Thomas Picketty, author of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, published in 2014 and one of those books many people argue about but few read. (I plead guilty, but my spouse worked his way through it. We discussed it extensively.) Picketty is a French academic political economist. He specializes in the study of “economic inequality, taking a historic and statistical approach” (Wikipedia). He cites literature to illustrate the impacts of income inequality, and mentions Flaubert and also Balzac.

Here’s my blog post on Thomas Picketty

Picketty makes clear the human and social costs of extreme income inequality. I think he refrains from suggesting alternatives, but he has become controversial because some readers interpret Capital as a call to revolution, or at least major reform.

Nabokov would probably disapprove of Flaubert’s name being brought into a discussion of economics. He makes it clear that “bourgeois” refers to low taste and character, not low (or middling) economic status.

If you read a novel covered in Nabokov’s lectures, I certainly recommend that you read Nabokov alongside it. You may not understand or agree with everything he says, but he will give you a great deal to ponder.

Keep an eye on Picketty. I expect he will continue to stir interest and controversy.


“The Last Whalers – Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life” by Doug Bock Clark

The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with a Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life

347 pages, including maps, photos, notes and glossary. Nonfiction>ethnography.

How did this book end up on the give-away shelf at my dentist’s office? Brand new, only recently published (January 2019) and astonishingly good!

I never heard of Lembata Island in Indonesia, or the Lamaleran people. Lamalerans living on Lembata number only about 1500. Others are scattered throughout Indonesia and elsewhere in Asia. The Lamalera are the last subsistence whalers on earth.

Anthropologists consider Lamaleran culture to show the highest level of sharing and cooperation ever documented. Those two traits are essential to survival when low technology is used to hunt whales. The Lamalerans traditionally barter with their neighbors in order to supplement their diet of meat with fruit and vegetables. They have only recently (25 years ago?) entered the cash economy.

Clark spent about twelve months with the Lamalerans over a three year period, becoming fluent in their language, observing their daily lives and sometimes participating in their religious ceremonies, both Catholic and animistic. Clark sometimes referred to “shamanism” rather than animism, but I don’t know if he meant the same thing as Coelho did in Aleph (see recent post). There is no reference to the type of shamanistic “trance” that Coelho describes.

It surprised me to learn that so isolated a group existed. Having read a certain amount of popularized anthropology and known a few academics in the field, I didn’t think going off to spend time with remote, exotic people was still a possibility. Clark seems to have arrived at this project through journalism and travel writing, though his status as a two time Fulbright grant recipient suggests academic credentials in anthropology.

Clark almost entirely leaves himself out of the story, telling about the people he describes with vivid detail from THEIR point of view. I couldn’t stop reading!

In an explanatory afterword, he discusses how he limited his behavior in order not to “distort” the community he was observing. He seems to have judged this by “journalistic” (rather than anthropological or academic) standards, admitting that he spent money to transport Lamalerans for medical treatment that would have otherwise been unobtainable.

The link below leads to my review of another wonderful book related to anthropology.

Noble Savages – My Life Among Two Dangerous Tribes – the Yanomamo and the Anthropologists by N A Chagnon

Looking back at my post about Chagnon led me to reflect:

Both the Lamalerans and the Yanomamo (an Amazon tribe) can be considered “successful” cultures, each achieving slow population growth in a challenging environment. According to Chagnon, the Yanomamo dealt with population pressure by fission, dividing into smaller groups when their numbers exceeded about 100. The Lamalerans dealt with population pressure by out migration. Adults found work elsewhere in Indonesia and beyond. Usually they maintained their contact with home, and provided a conduit for ideas about change. Sometimes they facilitate other departures, like temporary enrollment at a university.

Web surfing to learn more about Clark, I found his article in Gentleman’s Quarterly about a recent attempt to contact a smaller and more isolated tribe, the Sentinelese. I’ll write about that soon.

“Being Mortal – Medicine and What Matters in the End” by Atul Gawande AND “Five Wishes” by Aging With Dignity

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Am I getting morbid? I read and think a good deal about aging and death. I’m 70 years old. People around me are coping with health problems. Help!

My first reaction to Being Mortal was that it’s a complete downer. Gawande shares stories from his own family. If a family that includes highly educated medical professionals suffers so much confusion and difficulty managing end-of-life care, what chance do the rest of us stand?

I suggest starting on Chapter 4 or 5, and taking the remainder according to your interests. To me, the second half of the book was generally more useful than the first half. That said, this book (published in 2014) is a thoughtful contribution to the ongoing conversation about aging and death in America. I recommend it highly.

Gawande emphasizes that it’s not only the patient who benefits from advance planning. The course of a person’s last days or weeks has major impact on the mental health of survivors, say six months later.

The take away message in Being Mortal is buried on Chapter 6 (Letting Go), on page 172. HOPE IS NOT A PLAN.

We all hope to die at home, surrounded by our loved ones. We hope for dignity and freedom from pain. Our chance of getting this positive end-of-life experience is small. Most Americans die in hospitals or nursing homes. If that’s my fate, I want to know everything I can do in order to have some control over what happens, to “do it my way”.

Five Wishes is a form (more of a workbook) that you can fill out so that your loved ones know what you want. Any one of us may have intervals (possibly temporary) when we can’t make our own medical decisions. Families are often faced with weighty decisions. Family members may disagree about treatment. Five Wishes won’t solve all of this, but it can help.

So, I’m not “being morbid”. I’m trying, in my own way, to do some planning, to lay some groundwork, to make my future easier and more positive, and to ease my loved ones’ burdens when I die. That’s all. I feel good about it.

“Aleph” by Paulo Coelho


How likely was it that I would choose two library books with the same plot in successive trips to the Library?

Aleph resembles Less (see blog entry January 22, 2020) in that each features a writer who undertakes a journey. Sensitive, clumsy Arthur Less is trying to get away from his chaotic life. Paulo, older, stronger and wealthier, is following a “spiritual path” to deal with unresolved personal issues like guilt.

The plot of Aleph requires acceptance of reincarnation. For me, suspension of disbelief was necessary. Two other premises were problematic – the reality of shamanistic trance and the value of complete submission in a master/student relationship.

That’s quite a lot of (my) baggage for a work of fiction to carry. I admit that my literalism is excessive and I often suspend this or that critical attitude in order to enjoy a novel. (I enjoy an occasional dose of the supernatural.)

I don’t know whether this book was written in English or in Coelho’s native tongue, Portugese. Wikipedia describes Coelho as being “associated with magic and occultism”.

I had trouble reading this book, and skipped most of one chapter. I disliked the protagonist, who came across to me as a man who expected he could have “everything”. I  won’t be seeking out other works by Coelho.

“The Truffle Underground” by Ryan Jacobs

The Truffle Underground: A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World's Most Expensive Fungus

Subtitled “A Tale of Mystery, Mayhem, and Manipulation in the Shadowy Market of the World’s Most Expensive Fungus”, this book occupies the intersection between food writing and travel writing. Not a bad place to be! Fun for all!

Personally, I’m only just sophisticated enough to know that the truffle of the title is NOT the soft chocolate confection that turns up in a Whitman’s Sampler. I’ve heard of the fungus called truffle, which grows underground on tree roots. Not sure I have tasted it, except possibly in “truffle oil”, a product that author Ryan Jacobs does not respect.

Truffles are a very high priced culinary delicacy. The best are harvested in France and Italy. Others originate in China, Tunisia and elsewhere. Attempts at cultivation have had limited success. Since the supply chain starts with individual “hunters” bringing truffles to dealers in hundreds of small European market towns, the truffle trade is hard to regulate, and fraud abounds.

This is Ryan Jacobs first book, but he has an extensive publication history with The Atlantic, one of my favorite periodicals. He currently writes and serves as Deputy Editor for Pacific Standard. His website says he specializes in international crime and intrigue. This is a young writer to watch!

I tried to find an  picture of a truffle. Like the fungus, the image proved elusive.