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We lost Milo this year but I'm going to start reading books to dedicate these pages to him. Miss you, feller.


"The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton" Jane Smiley
I stood up and moved away from the vent, suddenly weary of the certain outcome of their speculations. Back to Alice, back to the strange languor of life. It vexed me, too, that though their afternoons of complaint and self-justification would result in nothing new, they would make their way through it, anyway, like cows following the same old meandering track through their all too familiar pasture and coming upon the same old over-grazed corner as if it were fresh and unexpected.

I thought of something brother Roland Brereton had sometimes said about why he wasn't particularly neighborly: "Why should I look after those who can't look after themselves? When the time comes, they'll be too behindhand to look after me."

In fact, in many ways it seemed as though fate or luck was separating all of our acquaintances into layers...but I thought, Well, Americans always sort themselves out one way or another into rich and poor, and then everybody gets blamed for however he ends up. Lawrence was the biggest town for gossip I ever saw, and it was only during a war that what folks said about each other was either respectful or kind.

"Three Cups of Tea" Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
This book is about Greg Mortenson's incredible works in Pakistan and, for the last several years, Afghanistan. This story outlines in detail his quest, starting with one humble school for both boys and girls, to his successful completion of more than a hundred schools in the Northern Provinces and valleys. The non-profit group that he founded to make this all happen is the Central Asia Institute.

What struck me first is that education, more than anything else, will be the killer of extremism of all types. The Taliban and Al-Queda have both recruited uneducated children (and adults) who are much more susceptible to propaganda than even the mildly educated.

Secondly, Mortenson approaches the projects with the philosophy to empower the various communities to do the work themselves, and not impose his own cultural background upon them. This has been an exhaustive and truly remarkable achievement.

A small donation to this amazing group can garner many miles of American Karma. That $6 oversized Carl's Jr. behemoth you're chokin' down while leaning against your manly $35,000 pickup truck could buy a couple weeks worth of provisions for an entire family. Please take a minute to check out the web site.

"The Professor and the Madman" (A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary) Simon Winchester
This is a drier read than the subtitle indicates but well worth the effort.

"The Children's Hospital" Chris Adrian
This all takes place within a floating hospital after the world is flooded by God. Or flooded, by God. It sort of reminded me of the trend of current TV series such as 'Heroes' that go on and on and never quite resolve, with subplot after subplot. This was another one of those, however, that I had to finish...semi-satisfying, lovely bouquet.

"Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons" Lorna Landvik
This tale spans forty years of a group of women friends (also neighbors in a Minneapolis suburb) who form a book club that becomes an important social bond for all of them. Landvik knows how to maintain your interest in her characters making for a quick and entertaining read.

"Independent People" Halldør Laxness
If you are a fan of the music of the Icelandic band Sigur Røs, here is the literary equivalent. Both capture the eery and remote lay of an untamed landscape still minutely populated. Independent People was written in the 1930's but like all great literature, the theme of mans struggles are timeless. This is the story of Gudbjarter Jonsson, a stubborn self made man, as he endures the hardships of tending his own hard earned land...but it's not all dour. Laxness weaves in humor and satire effortlessly as the tragedies of everyday life unfolds. Not an easy read but I encourage those who stick with it a great reward.

Forenoon, noon, and afternoon are as far off as the countries we hope to see when we grow up; evening as remote and unreal as death...

Few things are so inconstant, so unstable, as a loving heart, and yet it is the only place in the world where one can find sympathy.

...there is much comfort in the thought that time effaces everything, crime and sorrow no less than love.

...two human beings have such trouble in understanding each other, there is nothing so tragical as two human beings.

In its own way misery no less than revelry is varied in form and worthy of note wherever there lurks a spark of life in the world...

Below is his rant of the wealthy politician, that begins with a miserable description of the worst behavior but moves to a more hopeful prognosis...
Wherein lay the secret of Ingolfur Arnarson's success? To what gifts, what accomplishments, did he owe the speed of the ascent that had carried him so rapidly from obscurity to fame, from nonentity to national eminence? Already, in spite of his youth, he was one of the most important and most influential men in the country, a national figure whose photograph was the daily delight of the newspapers, whose name the euphonic pride of the fattest headlines. Did he perhaps owe his rise, like great men before him, to a constant rooting and grubbing for personal profit? Was he always on the hunt for anything that people in need might have for sale, so as to be able to sell it again to others who could not do without it and were driven, possibly, by an even greater need? Had he, for example, appropriated a croft here, a croft there in years of depression and sold them again when prosperity returned and prices rose? Had he perhaps lent people hay in a hard spring and demanded the same weight in sheep as security? Or food and money to the starving, at a usurious rate of interest? Or had he achieved greatness by stinting himself of food and drink, like an ill-provisioned criminal in flight through the wilds, or a peasant who, in spite of slaving eighteen hours a day, has been told by his dealer that his debts are still increasing and that he has now reached the limit of his credit? Or by having one solitary chair in his room, and a broken one at that, and shambling about in a filthy assortment of mouldy old rags all day, like a wretched tramp or a farm labourer? Or was the method he employed that of accumulating thousand upon thousand at the bottom of his chest until he was rich enough to found a savings bank and start lending folk money at a legal rate of interest, and then standing in front of destitute men and informing them that the depth of his poverty was such that soon he would have to sell the very soul from his body if he wished to escape imprisonment for debt?...No Ingolfur Arnarson's road to honour and repute had been neither the miser's nor the merchant's bloody career, hitherto the sole paths to wealth and true dignity recognized as legal by the Icelandic community and it's justice. What made Ingolfur Arnarson a great man was first and foremost his ideals, his unquenchable love of mankind, his conviction that the people needed improved conditions of life and better facilities for cultural advancement, his determination to mitigate his fellow men's sufferings by establishing a better form of government in the country. This government, instead of being a helpless puppet in the hands of the peasant's ruthless oppressors, the merchants, would be the small producer's, especially the peasant's, most powerful ally in his struggle for existence.

But a more bitter reality seems to creep to the surface...
Then did all the grants and the subsidies, the benefits and the bargain offers pass over these poverty-stricken peasants when Ingolfur Arnarson's ideals were at last brought to fruition? What is one to say? It so happens that it signifies little though a penniless crofter be offered a grant from the Treasury towards the cost of tractors and modern ploughs. Or a forty years' loan to build a concrete house with double walls, water on tap, linoleum, and electric light. Or a bonus on his deposits. Or a prize for cultivating a large expanse of land. Or a princely manure-cistern for the droppings for one or one and a half cows. The fact is that it is utterly pointless to make anyone a generous offer unless he is a rich man; rich men are the only people who can accept a generous offer. To be poor is simply the peculiar human condition of not being able to take advantage of a generous offer. The essence of being a poor peasant is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts that politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideals that only make the rich richer and poor poorer.

"Well, personally," he said (Gudbjarter), "I've come to the conclusion that a fellow has no more chance of becoming an independent man these days than he had in the old days, if he does and builds himself a house. Never in the whole history of the country, from the time of the settlement onward, has an ordinary working man managed to build himself a house worthy of the name, so I don't see what good will come of it by starting now. We'll just have to let the old turf walls suffice. And anyway, what does it matter if a man has to live in a little mud hut all his life when his life, when you can really call it a life, is so short? It would be another matter altogether if folk had souls and were immortal. Only in that case would there be any point in trying to get oneself a house built."

Once again they had laid waste the lone worker's farm; they are always the same from century to century, for the simple reason that the lone worker remains the same from century to century. A war on the continent may bring some relief, for a year or so, but it is only a seeming help, an illusion. The lone worker will never escape from his life of poverty for ever and ever; he will go on existing in affliction as long as man is not man's protector, but his worst enemy. The life of the lone worker, the life of the independent man, is in its nature a flight from other man, who seek to kill him.

"Miss Garnet's Angel" Sally Vickers

"Blue Angel" Francine Prose
This is a witty satire on higher education, focusing on the creative writing departments. Well worth a read.

Swenson argued for Claris. He'd dragged in Chekhov to tell the class that the writer need not paint a picture of an ideal world, but only describe the actual world, without sermons, without judgement. As if his students give a shit about some dead Russian that Swenson ritually exhumes to support his loser opinions. And yet just mentioning Chekhov made Swenson fell less alone, as if he were being watched over by a saint who wouldn't judge him for the criminal fraud of pretending that these kids could be taught what Swenson's pretending to teach them. Chekhov would see into his heart and know that he sincerely wished he could give his students what they want: talent, fame, money, a job.

"Skeletons on the Zahara" Dean King
This story is based on the true-life account of twelve American sailors who shipwrecked in 1815 off the coast of Africa and were taken slaves for the better part of a year. It really made me thirsty.

"S is for Silence" Sue Grafton
Another quick read and thrill ride by Grafton, featuring the protagonist detective Kinsey Millhone. Wheeee.

"What the Dead Know" Laura Lippman
This is a cold case tour-de-force by Lippman. A page turner. Yes, the pages actually turn on their own. Amazing. Maybe it's just my copy...

"Special Topics in Calamity Physics" Marisha Pessl
I kept saying to myself "I'M NOT GONNA FINISH THIS IT'S GOING ON FOREVER AND CHOCK FULL OF ACADEMIC AND LITERARY REFERENCES THAT NEVER END AND I CAN'T TAKE ANY MORE!!!" Like that. The two quotes below are actually references from other authors:
"As far as one journeys, as much as a man sees, from the turrets of the Taj Mahal to the Siberian wilds, he may eventually come to an unfortunate conclusion - usually while he's lying in bed, staring at the thatched ceiling of some substandard accommodation in Indochina, " writes Swithin in his last book, the posthumously published Whereabouts, 1917 (1918). "It is impossible to rid himself of the relentless, cloying fever commonly known as Home. After seventy-three years of anguish I have found a cure, however. You must go home again, grit your teeth and however arduous the exercise, determine, without embellishment, your exact coordinates at Home, your longitudes and latitudes. Only then, will you stop looking back and see the spectacular view in front of you."

I present Paragraph 14, the section entitled "Zeus Complex": "The egocentric Man seeks to taste immortality by engaging in demanding physical challenges, wholeheartedly bringing himself to the brink of death in order to taste an egotistical sense of accomplishment, of victory. Such a feeling is false and short-lived, for Nature's power over Man is absolute. Man's honest place is not in extreme conditions, where, let's face it, he's frail as a flea, but in work. It is in building things and governing, the creation of rules and ordinances. It is in work Man will find life's meaning, not in the selfish, heroin-styled rush of hiking Everest without oxygen and nearly killing himself and the poor Sherpa carrying him."

"Blackwood Farm" Anne Rice
I admit it...I love reading Anne Rice.

"Hello the house!"

"But you love books, then," Aunt Queen was saying. I had to listen.
"Oh yes," Lestat said. "Sometimes they're the only thing that keeps me alive."
"What a thing to say at your age," she laughed.
"No, but one feel desperate at any age, don't you think? The young are eternally desperate," he said frankly. "And books, they offer one hope – that a whole universe might open up from between the covers, and falling into that new universe, one is saved."
"Oh, yes, I think so, I really do," Aunt Queen responded, almost gleefully. "It ought to be that way with people and sometimes it is. Imagine – each new person an entire universe. Do you think we can allow that? You're clever and keen."
"I think we don't want to allow it," Lestat responded. We're too jealous, and fearful. But we should allow it, and then our existence would be wondrous as we went from soul to soul."
Aunt Queen laughed gaily.

Yep, imagine a world where everyone read literature...there'd be no more religion as there would be no more sheep, and people might actually start exchanging ideas on a mass scale.
Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. - Eleanor Roosevelt

"The Pact: A Love Story" Jodi Picoult
An American Dream gone awry. A suicide/homicide? I'm not telling but, to Picoult's credit, there's no happy ending here. An imperfect but engaging read. Here's an interesting exchange that very tidily describes an aptitude that most artists strive for and few achieve:
"Thank you," Jordan said. "So Emily's paintings developed fairly logically as she went through high school?"
"Technically, yes. There was a lot of heart there from day one, but as she progressed from ninth grade to twelfth grade, I stopped seeing what she was thinking of her subjects, and saw instead what the subject was thinking of being a subject. That's something you rarely see in amateur painters, Mr. McAfee. It's a measure of real refinement."

"The Feast of Love" Charles Baxter
Another one I wasn't sure I'd finish. Did. Here are a few passages...
...What a midwesterner he was, a thoroughly unhip guy with his heart in the usual place, on the sleeve, in plain sight. He was uninteresting and genuine, sweet-tempered and dependable, the sort of man who will stabilize your pulse rather than make it race. He proposed. And I accepted.

You know what I hate? I hate it when someone turns to me and says, “What're you thinking Bradley? Tell me. What're you thinking?" Well, no. If it's a-penny-for-your-thought time, here's your penny back. Because, first of all, it's private, whatever my thoughts are – and don't think I'll tell you all my thoughts, either – but secondly, most of the time I don't, in the way of things, have any thoughts. There aren't any thoughts, per se, is what I'm saying. Day after day it's a long hallway up there, just a yard sale, interrupted with random images of my paintings, or my dog, or the coffee store, or memories, or a woman, her face or her body or something she said, all of it in free fall through the synapses.

We do what we do in tandem when you belong together. We go to movies, we go dancing (she's a better dancer than I am), we go to the grocery store and hold hands in the aisles (scandalizing the racists), we decide about furniture, we cook, we make love, we talk about the future, we play with the dog and take him for walks, we talk about our plans to get married, where and how and when. We fit together. (I avoid saying these things in public; people hate to hear it, as if I'd forced them to eat raw sugar.) There's nothing to talk about to strangers anymore, if you know what I mean. Everything I want to say, I say to her. Life has turned into what I once imagined it was supposed to be, as complacent and awful as that sounds. In fact, I don't really want to talk about this anymore. As the poet says, all happy couples are alike, it's the unhappy ones who create the stories.

I'm no longer a story. Happiness has made me fade into real life.

"The Stones of Summer" Dow Mossman
This has an interesting back story as the author wrote this in the mid 70's and disappeared from public life. I picked up a copy after hearing about it on NPR a while back. Another of those thick tomes that I almost threw out the window a couple of times but glad I stuck to it. Being a midwesterner myself may have helped, and I knew a few peers growing up who may have possessed the anger and resignation that drowns the Iowa native Dawes Oldham Williams (D.O.W.). Autobiographical? Maybe it's why Dow disappeared. In some ways it's as if Mossman was a seer as he jokingly refers to the outrageous notion of the actor Ronald Reagan becoming President. This was in 1972.

And he laughed, remembering it, sitting on the hill and saying the name, but he could see that words were only vessels for defining place, not time, because time had no vessels for defining itself, even in shadows, the way water forms itself in a jar. Words.

"Ya," he said, "but the ones he found by the frozen sled when no one else would go out and look? The half-dead ones and the baby he found lying under the only half-warm, pure-dee dead horses!?! How about the orphanage and school he built? Wasn't that part of it?"
"Yes," she said, "provided you need orphanages or schools in places you live, provided you live in a place that doesn't take in people and teach them, I guess some good along the way was a necessary accident, too"

It is an old dream. In the end a clown comes on stage. He is dressed like Charles J. Chaplin, and in black distances at the end of a candle he mimes his own face; he takes it off and examines it at length; he is distended, ballooning, and his motions fill in the light. He talks of social democracy. His eyes fold themselves, roll, are vaguely lost in the yellow sockets, and he is crying now. Slowly he begins miming himself mime himself. He becomes lost in fits of forgetfulness.

"Well," Travelin' Tommy said, "he thought about the fact that if you're a natural genius, with no place to go, and if you're floatin' down the river at night, just hearin' the dogs on the western shore howlin' at the fire in your pit, you either learn humor and humanity or you go mad in the end."

…The Catholics were holding another moonlight wake, behind him, across a yard of black and blowing trees. The air was dense, dreaming, heavy like ancestors...

...He moved on toward the bridge, rustling the sand and the long night-blooming edges of grass, learning only the small lesson that you carry yourself along, wherever you go; trying to unlearn the Americas myth that by changing place, you are also changing identity...

"Listen," Dawes Williams said, "screw on your ole bonnet of an attention span, Dorothy, and try concentrating on this very hard for awhile. Ready? Any," he began, "social science, a contradiction in sanity to begin with, constructed like soft religion upon absolute relative knowledge drawn from structured learning, reason, and assimilated research is mostly dangerous bunk that operates on the level of self-confirming prattle. It is not only an illusion in progress, a highly pseudo exercise, it is actually recessive in nature. An outgrowth of pragmatism really, it remains true to itself – the merest rote function – the great and inferior butterfly ghost of this century–and it, therefore, ranks unintuitive, unimaginative, unstoned and non-a priori disciplined social scientists – the great and misled butterfly nets of this century – a great deal lower on the chain of being than Celtic Druids drunk on the witch's eye of the moon. In fact," Dawes Williams said, "when one is drunk enough, one is more than tempted to say that all backward-moving evil in this century which cannot be directly traced to that false, unquestioned god mask Technology can be indirectly, irrevocably and finally traced to the nub-headed priests of that electric god mask, to social scientists – i.e., the New 'Methodists' – the leading ninnies...and ninn-y-poops."