Category: Books

Quotes from the Underland

I’ve only made it through the preface of Underland: A Deep Time Journey by Robert Macfarlane—an “epic exploration of the Earth’s underworlds as they exist in myth, literature, memory, and the land itself”—yet rich quotes abound:

“The same three tasks recur across cultures and epochs: to shelter what is precious, to yield what is valuable, and to dispose of what is harmful. Shelter (memories, precious matter, messages, fragile lives). Yield (information, wealth, metaphors, minerals, visions). Dispose (waste, trauma, poison, secrets). Into the underland we have long placed that which we fear and wish to lose, and that which we love and wish to save.”

“Force yourself to see more deeply.”

“The underland is vital to the material structures of contemporary existence, as well as our memories, myths and metaphors.”

“Our ‘flat perspectives’ feel increasingly inadequate to the deep worlds we inhabit, and to the deep time legacies we are leaving.”

“‘Deep time’ is the chronology of the underland. Deep time is the dizzying expanses of Earth history that stretch away from the present moment. Deep time is measured in units that humble the human instant: epochs and aeons, instead of minutes and years.”

“When viewed in deep time, things come alive that seemed inert. New responsibilities declare themselves. A conviviality of being leaps to mind and eye. The world becomes eerily various and vibrant again. Ice breathes. Rock has tides. Mountains ebb and flow. Stone pulses. We live on a restless Earth.”

Media of the moment

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

Klazz Brothers & Cuba Percussion. Their Mozart Meets Cuba and Classical Meets Cuba mashups are great for people who want to get into either classical or Latin/jazz.

What is the Bible? by Rob Bell. I much prefer Bell in audiobook form, where his engaging and grounded storytelling chops can really shine. This revisionist history is good for skeptics but better for entrenched believers.

Knock Down the House. The Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez origin story I didn’t know we needed.

Avengers: Endgame. Will need a rewatch to decide if it’s better than Infinity War, but my first instinct is that it isn’t.

All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of The Wire by Jonathan Abrams. Amazon Prime has the whole series on streaming, so I decided to watch the first episode again just for kicks. Cut to just now wrapping up season 4… This shiiiiiiiiiiiiiii is good.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. Good combination of cultural analysis and practical takeaways.

Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Finally knocked this off my AFI 100 list. I’m pretty sure it was, shockingly, my first Elizabeth Taylor film. Mike Nichols directs it into something more artful than its “married couple argues the whole time” conceit.

Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick by Mallory O’Meara. The long-lost story of the female artist who designed the Creature in Creature from the Black Lagoon, alongside reflections on being a woman in Hollywood.

Media of the moment

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

A Clockwork Orange. Had been putting this off based on what I’d heard of its disturbing content, but finally bit the bullet for the sake of the AFI 100. Typically impressive Kubrickian cinematography and dark satire.

An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz. Kaleidoscopic narrative of a violent Chicago summer. Kotlowitz embeds with people and families affected by gang violence, illuminating the humanity within tragedy.

Captain Marvel. Brie Larson was a great choice.

Minding the Gap. Stunning.

A Star Is Born. Admire Bradley Cooper’s dedication and Lady Gaga’s talent.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. Paired with Sapiens and Homo Deus, this book made me at once immensely proud of humanity and profoundly disturbed by it.

Three Identical Strangers. Wild, stranger-than-fiction story.

Pretty Woman. My first time, despite having seen the “jewelry box laugh” scene and shopping montage as parodied in Dumb and Dumber. This wasn’t ’90s Julia Roberts at her peak, but she was on the way up.

Only dopes use drugs

I love everything about this book cover, which I encountered at the Frances Willard House Museum & Archives:

See more from Frances Willard.

Media of the moment, post-baby edition

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

The Baby Book by William Sears. This has been helpful thus far. Though don’t think we haven’t also randomly Googled things at odd hours.

The Cider House Rules. Filling in the gaps of my 1999 movie viewings. This gets less compelling once Homer leaves the orphanage.

Brazil. I’m always up for a good dystopian satire, but this one feels actively antagonistic toward the idea of being likable.

Saturday Night Fever. I was familiar with this from references in Airplane! and The Simpsons, but I hadn’t actually seen it in full. The dance scenes are oddly mesmerizing, but the sexual politics are quite disturbing.

Terms of Endearment. I’m sorry, I just can’t get into Shirley MacLaine. Debra Winger is the highlight.

Humans: A Brief History of How We F*cked It All Up by Tom Phillips. Reviewing this for Booklist. It’s like Yuval Harari’s Sapiens by way of a cheeky, crude stand-up comedian.

Four quotes from The Overstory

Here are four context-free quotes I like from The Overstory by Richard Powers, a book I’ve only just started and am not sure if I’ll even finish:

“Makes you think different about things, don’t it?”

“Now, that next best of times, is long, and rewrites everything.”

“A tree is a passage between earth and sky.”

“They can’t believe a kid worked for months on an original idea, for no reason at all except the pleasure of looking until you see something.”

Favorite books of 2018

Goodreads tells me I read 72 books this year. Though I didn’t read as many as last year, with a baby on the way I’ve been trying to read abundantly while I can, for both quality and quantity. Here are the books published in 2018 that I enjoyed the most. (See previous best-of book lists.)

1. Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City by Sam Anderson (review)

You might have heard good things about this book. I’m here to tell you all of them are true. The pleasure I felt from the first page on is a feeling I chase with all my reading. Your mileage may vary, of course, but this kaleidoscopic story of Oklahoma City is more than just a rote retelling of a city’s history. Anderson wraps the OKC Thunder, tornadoes, Timothy McVeigh, city planning, a truly insane founding process, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, and much more into a cohesive, sure-handed, wry, and enlightening narrative.

Choice quote:

Radar data, like starlight, is information about the past: it tells you about the distant object it bounced off seconds or minutes before. This can tell you a lot—that conditions are perfect for a big storm, that something is in the air—but it can’t actually look at the storm for you. For that, you still need people. Storm chasers provided the stations with what they call “ground truth.”

2. Circe by Madeline Miller

My highest-ever ranking of a novel, and it damn near took the first spot. A retelling of the story of Circe, daughter of the sun god Helios, this isn’t something I’d normally read, but the rave reviews made me give it a try. Boy am I glad I didn’t let my woeful lack of knowledge on Greek mythology stop me. I found Miller’s prose to be so rich and empathetic, powerful yet tender. Read half of it on audiobook and friggin’ loved Perdita Weeks’ narration. I just started reading The Odyssey for the first time; I sense it will be that much richer having gone through this odyssey.

Choice quote:

Only that: we are here. This is what it means to swim in the tide, to walk the earth and feel it touch your feet. This is what it means to be alive.

3. Atlas of a Lost World: Travels in Ice Age America by Craig Childs

Archaeology, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, imagination—all come into play in this meaty and winding travelogue around North America to investigate notable Ice Age locations. Made me immensely grateful for our (not so) distant human ancestors.

Choice quote:

We have all but forgotten how to inhabit this kind of fear. We gave up spears and skins and the weather on us day and night for cup holders and cell phones and doors that close behind us. What, I wonder, was lost?

4. Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine by Alan Lightman

Picked this up on a whim and luckily was in the right mood for its meditative style and mix of mind-expanding ruminations on astrophysics, God, philosophy, nature, and the meaning of life. Do not read if you don’t want your worldview—or really, galaxyview—bent like spacetime.

Choice quote:

[Earth is] a large family of noisy and feeling animals—the living, throbbing kingdom of life on our planet, of which we are a part. A kingdom that consecrates life and its possibilities even as each of its individuals passes away. A kingdom that dreams of unity and permanence even as the world fractures and fades. A kingdom redesigning itself, as we humans now do. All is in flux and has always been so. … Flux is beyond sadness and joy. Flux and impermanence and uncertainty seem to be simply what is.

5. Atomic Habits: Tiny Changes, Remarkable Results by James Clear

Learned about this when I stumbled upon the author’s Twitter, which proved to be quite the hotbed of interesting replies about people’s habits. The book does a great job laying out practical tools and ways of thinking about behavior, especially in how conceptions of identity and systems influence it far more than emotions and willpower.

Choice quote:

You get what you repeat.

6. How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan (review)

From the author of The Botany of Desire, one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books, comes this new revelatory exploration of practical and transformative uses of psychedelics. Probably because I’ve never done psychedelics, I was eager to learn about them from a reputable and investigative source with an open mind like Pollan. He explores the history of psychedelics, how they were used in clinical trials in the 1950s before Timothy Leary and the damned dirty hippies ruined them for everyone (my words), and how modern science is discovering their powerful affects on the brain and mental health.

Choice quote:

Psychedelic experiences are notoriously hard to render in words; to try is necessarily to do violence to what has been seen and felt, which is in some fundamental way pre- or post-linguistic or, as students of mysticism say, ineffable. Emotions arrive in all their newborn nakedness, unprotected from the harsh light of scrutiny and, especially, the pitiless glare of irony. Platitudes that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Hallmark card glow with the force of revealed truth.

7. The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together by Adam Nayman

A big and beautiful book of essays on the works of America’s most reliably excellent filmmakers. Nayman covers every Coen film from Blood Simple to Hail, Caesar! and includes interviews with frequent collaborators. It made me appreciate the Coen Cinematic Universe much more.

8. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Richly drawn characters in modern Atlanta dealing with a false imprisonment and how it upends life’s expected narratives. I think this is the second Oprah’s Book Club selection I’ve read while it was still reigning—the first being The Underground Railroad—so I’m 2 for 2 so far.

9. Space Odyssey: Stanley Kubrick, Arthur C. Clarke, and the Making of a Masterpiece by Michael Benson

Wouldn’t you know it, all I wanted to do after reading this was rewatch 2001: A Space Odyssey.

10. Am I There Yet? The Loop-de-Loop, Zigzagging Journey to Adulthood by Mari Andrew

Discovered Mari Andrew on Instagram. She packs so much insight, emotional intelligence, and artistry into deceptively simple illustrations, and has a great eye for the little things in life and how to turn them into art.

Honorable mentions: Farsighted: How We Make the Decisions That Matter the Most by Steven Johnson, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Word of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King, The Library Book by Susan Orlean

Favorite non-2018 books I read this year

  • On Trails: An Exploration by Robert Moor
  • Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
  • The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan
  • A Life In Parts by Bryan Cranston
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Dreaming the Beatles: The Love Story of One Band and the Whole World by Rob Sheffield
  • Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
  • Truman by David McCullough
  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
  • 84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (review)

Long Quotes on the ‘Prairie Fires’

Caroline Fraser’s Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder is about 150 pages too long, and spends a lot more time with Laura’s daughter Rose than I expected or desired. But the first third of the book, with the Ingalls family and Laura as a young adult, was quite illuminating. (Great Scott am I glad I don’t live on the prairie in the late 1800s!)

The Little House novels and TV show were, shall we say, not quite accurate. But they certainly contain a grain of truth, as Fraser writes about the Ingalls family’s time in Kansas in 1870-71:

In a brief and concentrated span of time, the Ingallses had experienced virtually everything that would come to be seen as quintessentially Western: encounters with wolves and Indians, angry disputes over open range, prairie fires, neighbors coming to their aid. Although they would retreat for a time to Wisconsin, an enduring impression had been made, one that would strengthen over the years as the family moved. From the open doorway of a tiny log cabin, Laura had watched as a parade of Western iconography passed by. It was as if the spirit of manifest destiny had been imprinted in her memory, leaving a series of stereoscopic images, each more dramatic than the one before, each intensely experienced and utterly unique, yet emblematic of all western settlement. The family spent little more than a year on the Kansas prairie, but it shaped her temperament and outlook for the rest of her life. That year made her who she was.

Another quote rang relevant to today. Powell, a Civil War hero and the director of the U.S. Geological Survey, warned that the West (today’s Great Plains states) was too arid for farming and spelled bankruptcy for farmers. He advocated cooperative irrigation and grazing schemes, but “bonanza farms” promoted by Big Business at the time offered get-rick-quick fantasies that were much more alluring:

Fundamentally, the question was whether national decisions of significant economic import, affecting thousands of citizens, would be governed by Enlightenment science or by huckster fantasy. The outcome was immediately clear to anyone reading the newspapers: fantasy won. In a campaign comparable to modern-day corporate denial of climate change, big business and the legislators in its pocket brushed Powell’s analysis aside. Railroads were not about to capitulate to the geologist’s limited vision, and his plans as director of the U.S. Geological Survey to limit western settlement would be undermined by intense political attacks. James B. Power, land agent for the Northern Pacific—who had earlier admitted that Dakota was a “barren desert”—dismissed Powell as an elite intellectual, lacking the experience of “practical men.” “No reliance can be placed upon any of his statements as to the agricultural value of any country,” Power said. For good measure, he called the geologist “an ass.”

Shorter Power: “Fake news!”

Boom Town

In his new book Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Sam Anderson writes about how Oklahoma’s storm chasers, though overly sensational and ratings-hungry, still provide crucial insight about Oklahoma’s notoriously destructive tornadoes:

Radar data, like starlight, is information about the past: it tells you about the distant object it bounced off seconds or minutes before. This can tell you a lot—that conditions are perfect for a big storm, that something is in the air—but it can’t actually look at the storm for you. For that, you still need people. Storm chasers provided the stations with what they call “ground truth.”

I like that: ground truth. And I thought it perfectly described Boom Town as a whole, which is bound for my 2018 best-of list.

The pleasure I felt from the first page on is a feeling I chase with all my reading. More than just a rote retelling of a city’s history, it’s a kaleidoscopic story of Oklahoma City that finds fascinating resonance between seemingly disparate elements. Anderson’s first-rate reportage on the OKC Thunder, tornadoes, Timothy McVeigh, city planning, a truly insane city founding story, Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, and so much more made OKC seem familiar even to someone who’s never been there.

He wraps all of those things into a cohesive, sure-handed, wry, and enlightening narrative that says as much about Oklahoma as America at large. Highly recommended for history buffs, sports fans, and narrative nonfiction lovers especially.

Päntsdrunk, baby box, Moomin, and Finland’s other official emojis

God bless Finland, my ancestral homeland. First, there’s the new book Pantsdrunk (Kalsarikanni): The Finnish Path to Relaxation (Drinking at Home Alone in your Underwear) by Miska Rantanen. From the publisher:

Danes have hygge. Swedes have lagom. But the Finnish secret to contentment is faster and easier—”kalsarikänni” or pantsdrunk—drinking at home, alone, in your underwear.

When it comes to happiness rankings, Finland always scores near the top. Many Finnish phenomena set the bar high: the best education system, gender equality, a flourishing welfare state, sisu or bull-headed pluck. Behind all of these accomplishments lies a Finnish ability to stay calm, healthy and content in a riptide of endless tasks and temptations. The ability comes from the practice of “kalsarikanni” translated as pantsdrunk.

Peel off your clothes down to your underwear. Place savory or sweet snacks within reach alongside your bed or sofa. Make sure your television remote control is nearby along with any and all devices to access social media. Open your preferred alcohol. Your journey toward inner strength, higher quality of life, and peace of mind has begun.

Second, Finland’s official Ministry of Foreign Affairs produced a set of 56 emojis to “explain some hard-to-describe Finnish emotions, Finnish words and customs.” I can and cannot believe these are real:

“pantsdrunk” personified:

kalsarikannit_m.png

kalsarikannit_f.png

The famous Baby Box:

baby_in_a_box.png

The Aurora Borealis:

auroraborealis.png

“Finnish Love”, which is so emo:

finnishlove.png

The concept of sisu:

sisu.png

The sauna:

sauna_m.png

And of course, the OG cell phone, the Nokia (which they call “Unbreakable”):

unbreakable.png

Download the app or the image files for more pantsdrunk-ing pleasure.