Contented Reader

just point me toward the nearest library


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Previous link: Hidden History of Cincinnati


by John Uri Lloyd


Have you not sometimes felt that in yourself there may exist undeveloped senses that await an awakening touch to open to yourself a new world, senses that may be fully developed, but which saturate each other and neutralize themselves; quiescent, closed circles which you can not reach, satisfied circuits slumbering within your body and that defy your efforts to utilize them?

This was a weird, weird, book.

I’m so glad I encountered it.

I couldn’t believe that I didn’t already know about it.  How is it possible that my own city was the setting and origin of a strange fantasy novel which influenced HP Lovecraft, and here I am, an avid reader and no stranger to Cincinnati’s museums and libraries, and yet I’ve never heard of it?

Now that I’ve read it, I understand, a little better, why I’ve never heard of it. I don’t like to use the word unreadable, but this was not an easy book to read, and I freely confess to skimming the scientific explanations (complete with diagrams) which took up page after page after page of its text.

I liked the beginning section quite a bit. It told the story of Lew Drury, who is visited in the night by a mysterious stranger who wants to read him an unpublished manuscript, but Drury has to promise to have it published, and also, the stranger has a knife. I’ll bet a lot of literary agents have this problem.   He starts to tell the story, about how he joined and then betrayed a certain nameless secret society, whose members then coerced him, as punishment, to use certain chemicals to completely change his appearance and go with them to an unknown destination.

So far, I’m right with you, book.  Secret society? Chemicals to make you look inexplicably old? Come with me, and don’t ask questions? I’m there. Let’s do this.

The destination turns out to be a cave in Kentucky, which is the entrance to (sure, why not?) a hollow-earth setting, where, deep within the center of the earth, there’s a whole other ecosystem and society.  This isn’t my first hollow-earth story, but I have to give credit to Lloyd for being really and truly committed to convincing the reader that his science is legit. I didn’t understand a word of the science he used to convince me, but, to be fair, I got really bored and started scanning past it after a few chapters.

If you can battle through the part of the book where he explains and explains and explains, your reward will be a freaky scene in which Drury drinks the liquid he finds in the cup of a certain mushroom, and has a vision of beautiful men and a beautiful woman in an ideal, beautiful society that he too can be part of…  – it really was a pretty great payoff, and it’s easy for me to see why the Spiritualists love this book.

If you decide to read this book, make sure you get a version with the illustrations – they do a lot to make the book better, and add to the general weirdness of the whole thing. If H.P. Lovecraft had been into herbalism and chemistry instead of paranoia and xenophobia, this might be the book he would have written.

I thought about following the chain from here to H.P. Lovecraft, but I’ve read lots of Lovecraft already, and I have a lot of questions about John Uri Lloyd and the Eclectic Medicine movement, so that’s the direction I want to follow.

Next link: John Uri Lloyd: The Great American Eclectic

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September 2, 2017 at 11:34 am

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Hidden History of Cincinnati

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hiddenhistoryHidden History of Cincinnati

Jeff Suess

First link

It’s been a hell of a year.

Everything was humming along reasonably smoothly. I wasn’t actually writing a book blog any more, because marriage changed some of my priorities and the ways I used my time, and that was fine, but life was really going pretty darned well, and all the little problems that cropped up were well within my ability to cope.

Then came Wednesday, November 9, 2016.

Not Tuesday the 8th.  On Tuesday the 8th, I was happy and excited.  On top of all the other good things in my life, I was about to see the election of the first female president, a woman I had really come to admire during the course of the campaign.  But I never do manage to stay up late on election night, no matter how much I care about the outcome, and anyway, watching the returns was making my wife and I both nervous. “He’s going to win,” she kept saying, but I explained to her that no, that couldn’t happen, and even though the election season had been very strange and upsetting, there really weren’t enough votes in the United States to elect a man who was clearly self-centered, racist, sexist, and not very bright.  The news, I assured her, were just trying to create a sense of suspense, so we’d all stay up and watch more commercials.

So it was the next morning when everything fell apart. At first, when I woke up and my wife told me, “He won,” I couldn’t understand what she was saying.  Then I didn’t believe her.  And then, I was devastated.  Not just because of the damage that was going to be done, but because this meant that there really were enough votes to elect him, and that meant that my country was a lot worse than I had given it credit for.

Since then, every day’s news seems to bring some fresh awfulness, and it’s all taking a toll on my mental health. And my physical health, too – I’ve gained fifteen pounds and a pain in my back, and I don’t sleep as well as I used to.

I can’t fix any of this. I have one vote, and I intend to use it. I have some money I can donate to those who are harmed, to try to help. But, like everyone else, I’m going to have to wait this out, and tend my own garden.

So maybe it’s time to spend less time staring at Twitter and feeling angry and helpless.  Maybe it’s time to turn my attention elsewhere.

For me, that elsewhere might just be books from, and about, the world before all this happened.  Reminders that humans have a long and complicated history, and we’ve come through hard times before.

I’m interested, right now, in the way a book can lead a person to another book, in a chain that keeps going in unexpected directions.  I’m interested in deliberately creating and following that chain.  I’m going to start right here, at a book I picked up at the Mercantile Library this weekend, a collection of stories from Cincinnati’s history. Why not? One starting point is as good as any other.

The beginning chapters were a reminder of how European-Americans like me came to settle this land, by killing or exiling the Shawnee and Miami people who used to live here.  I looked them up, and the Shawnee and Miami live in Oklahoma now.  It’s helpful to remember that the United States is a country built on the foundations of violent racism.  Is it amazing that racism is still a problem?  What’s amazing is that so much of the history of the country has been the story of white people who were trying to do better, trying, with varying degrees of success and failure, to stop treating people as things, and to persuade or force others to stop, too.

Anyway, I like the section on the nineteenth century better.  The chapter that caught my eye was chapter 14, “The Eclectic John Uri Lloyd.”  I had certainly heard Lloyd’s name before, and I’ve even had one visit to the Lloyd Library, a strange and beautiful place dedicated to the history of plant-based medicine.  However, I didn’t know anything about him.  From this book, I learned a little about Lloyd, and the school of Eclectic Medicine.  He didn’t have all the information he needed to do really excellent medicine, but he did look around him and see that a lot of nineteenth-century medicine was doing more harm than good, and bloodletting and mercury weren’t actually fixing people.  Lloyd and his colleagues set up a parallel path of medicine, focused on the use of plants to treat illness. It was the ‘holistic medicine’ of days gone by, doctors searching for anything that worked without doing harm. They weren’t right all the time, but they were trying. And even though they eventually died off as a movement, the library is still there, the collection of current and historic materials still used by people who are trying.

Maybe there’s something there for me, living through these troubling times. I got this book at the Mercantile Library, established when slavery was still the law of the land, to help people educate themselves who hadn’t had the privilege of formal education.  I read about a man who lived right through the Civil War, fought to end that dreadful practice. Progress is much, much too slow, but all the time, there are always people trying.

I also learned, from this chapter, that Lloyd wrote a very strange fantasy novel, called Etidorhpa, or, the end of the earth: the strange history of a mysterious being and the account of a remarkable journey. Project Gutenberg seems to have a copy, so I’m going to read it, the next book in the chain.

Next Link: Etidorhpa



Written by Contented Reader

August 28, 2017 at 7:29 am

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Books are magic

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When I say that books are magic, I don’t just mean that as some sort of pretty metaphor.  I’m completely literal here.  Books are magic.

I can scratch some basic shapes – just lines and curves – and put a thought directly into the brain of anyone who sees them.  They don’t have to be in the room with me, or even on the same continent.  Just those little shapes give the power of telepathy to anyone who cares to use it.  Draw enough of them, and you can cause your telepathic receiver to hallucinate huge, epic stories, or transmit wisdom, or skill, or joy.

Not only do books allow ordinary humans to experience telepathic power, they also are the best form of time travel we have access to.  On my bookshelf, I have a copy of the Epic of Gilgamesh.  Do you know how bizarrely, fantastically long ago that book was written?  I have zero context from which to imagine what it would have been like to live in 2100 BC.  But I open the book, and there I am – in telepathic contact, mind-to-mind, with a real human being who lived 4000 years ago.  I am communicating with the dead.

Absolutely and perfectly literally, I have the power to read minds, travel in time, and communicate with the dead, as long as I’m holding a book.

Now tell me that ‘books are magic’ is a metaphor.

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January 24, 2016 at 6:00 am

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Some animals I saw today

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A white pit bull, on a walk in the park.  It was wearing a sweater in the precise colors of a sock monkey.

A calico cat, with an orange face.  It is the new shop cat at the neighborhood pet food, chicken feed, and garden shop.  I asked it, “Are you a kitty?” but it wasn’t willing to commit itself.

A very small, very nervous dog in a sweater.  It was newly adopted, recently free of the puppy mill, and terrified of being left alone, so it sat on its person’s lap and trembled with nervous excitement during Sip-n-Stitch night at the cross stitch shop.


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January 23, 2016 at 6:00 am

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A student’s sense of justice

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Children have a powerful drive for justice and fairness.

It’s a little strange, that they do.  From the moment they enter the world, their lives are controlled by adults, huge and powerful and making decisions using logic that children don’t understand.  The children are powerless, and the adults sometimes act capriciously and arbitrarily.

So why do they so ardently expect that they should be treated fairly?

And yet, somehow, they do.

As we read Tangerine, by Edward Bloor, aloud in class, two big plot points happened.  A likeable character died, struck down by a random act of nature.  And the main character was cut from the soccer team, even though he played soccer well and hadn’t broken any rules.

My students were surprised by the character death.  There were a few gasps, in the classroom, when we read that part aloud.  But they didn’t have much to say about it.

But they were outraged when Paul was cut from the soccer team.  It wasn’t fair, they told me, and every hand went up, voices interrupting each other to earnestly explain that this just wasn’t right.

Many of my students haven’t even experienced life as fair – many of them live in poverty, some of them have parents whose parenting style can only be described as unpredictable, and yet nearly all of them seem to have this fundamental sense of fairness that is outraged when justice is violated.

Could it be innate?  Could their brains just know what justice is, and tell them that the world should be just?

If that’s the case, then there might be hope for my species after all.

Written by Contented Reader

January 22, 2016 at 6:00 am

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Secret socks

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Why not secretly wear socks that make you happy, knowing that no one else will see them?

Today I’m wearing brown.  Brown pants, a brown tweed jacket, boots, all very middle-school-teacher-on-a-cold-day.

No one can see my socks at all; they’re tucked under my pants and into my boots.

No one, looking at me, would have any idea that my socks are dancing with happy pink hedgehogs and yellow flowers, hugging my legs with hedgehoggy joy.

But knowing they’re there makes me smile to myself.


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January 21, 2016 at 6:00 am

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Snow Day

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Regularly scheduled days off from work are important.  Saturday and Sunday, every week, each with its own routine.  On Saturdays, one looks for something fun to do outside the house – family time, shopping, a dinner out.  Or else, it’s a time for doing work that hasn’t been done, like cleaning, or laundry, repairs, or grading papers.

Holidays are even better, because they don’t have their own routine.  It’s a bonus day, to add some pleasure to the week that wouldn’t fit into the usual weekend.

Best of all is a snow day.  A snow day feels like a gift from the universe.  We go to bed on time, ready to get up with the alarm and go to work in the morning, and in the morning, the roads are blanketed in snow and ice and everything is cancelled.  There’s no possibility of going out, the week’s jobs are done, and there’s literally nothing at all that needs to be done.

It’s a day to celebrate laziness, with no guilt at all to feel about watching TV all day, or reading a good book straight through.  I read Nnedi Okorafor’s Lagoon from cover to cover this morning, and drank four cups of tea – that’s right, four.  Why not?  I couldn’t go out if I wanted to.  Look at how icy and hostile the world is.  In an icy, hostile world, where even the air could kill you, better to wrap up in a down comforter and have another cup of tea and another episode of Doctor Who.

There really is very little in this world better than a snow day, and so few adults get to enjoy them.  It’s one of the good parts of being a teacher.

Written by Contented Reader

January 20, 2016 at 8:18 pm

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Season one of Penny Dreadful has an episode in which Vanessa is possessed by a demon, and an exorcism is needed.  It’s a very popular scene; I feel like I’ve seen it many times.

It’s a fantasy, which is why we write about it over and over again.

No, not the possession.  We all know what it feels like to have our hands take actions we had determined we wouldn’t take, or to hear our voices say words we would never say.  Sometimes, it feels as if that’s what is happening most of the time, and our actual decisions about our own words and actions are few and far between.

No, the beautiful fantasy is the exorcism.  That some expert could be called in, who will say some appropriate words, light a few candles, shout passionately in Latin, and in an instant, the bad spirit will be banished, and we’ll be ourselves again, the selves we believe ourselves to be, our words and actions perfectly aligned with our character as we see it.

Wouldn’t that be lovely?

At church, they tell the same story that they tell in the horror movies, but they call it ‘conversion.’  Someone says the right words, perhaps there’s a brief and touching ceremony, and a light enters our heart, and from that moment, we are that best self we imagine ourselves to be, with no more moments when our hands do harm and our voices speak hate, even though we really believed we were good.

In real life, outside of the stories, that isn’t how it works.  Changes do happen, sometimes, and we find our way to better actions and kinder words, but they don’t happen in an instant, and they aren’t caused by some pastoral hand.  Changes come when we spend months, years, decades, trying and failing and trying again to change a single painful habit, until one day, we look back and realize, “Hey, I haven’t done that in a long time.”

And we are pleased.  But we still tell stories about how nice it would be if we could become less awful people in a faster, easier way.

Written by Contented Reader

January 19, 2016 at 8:20 pm

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Essays in Idleness

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Essays in Idleness and The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon are collections of tiny personal essays.  In Japan, they’re called zuihitsu.  They’re charming because each essay is so tiny and so personal.  They can range from thoughts about ethics and ideas to thoughts about fashion, art, and individual anecdotes, and it’s easy to imagine their authors sitting down, in a quiet moment, to reflect on whatever they’ve been thinking about today.

Marcus Aurelius, who couldn’t have read either of those books, sat down in his quiet moments to write Reflections, tiny personal essays on how to live his best life and be his best self.

These little windows into the soul, from people who aren’t afraid to be earnest, are irresistible.  They are also an interesting model of what a blog might be.  A blogger could be a person who sits down in a moment of quietness to write a tiny essay, or maybe just a few sentences, about what is good, what is beautiful, what is wise, what is useful, and how one blogger tries to live a good life.

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January 18, 2016 at 8:12 pm

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MarcyKate Connolly

HarperCollins, 2015

Kymera is a chimera – hence the name.  She was assembled by her father from parts.  Some parts of her are parts of his real, human daughter, dead at the hands of a terrible, evil wizard.  But there are other parts.  Huge wings, for flying through the forest.  Claws, for tearing the flesh of enemies.  A sharp, poisonous tail, for stunning people into a deep sleep.  Bolts, holding parts together.  Kymera can’t go among people, because people are afraid of monsters.  But if she is good, and obeys her father’s loving instructions, and doesn’t ask too many questions or deviate from the rules, she can help him to rescue other girls from the terrible wizard.

You might not be surprised to learn that not everything is as it seems, and that Kymera is a child who will learn a great deal, some of it quite upsetting, in her journey from childhood to young-womanhood.  Growing up is like that, isn’t it?  You think you know who you are and how you fit into the world, and it all seems simple and clear, and it seems like there won’t ever be anything more to know.  But then you learn something that makes you ask questions, and getting answers to them lead to more questions, and before you know it, you find that nothing is at all what you thought it was.  And you realize that you have grown up, through the process.

This is that kind of book, the kind of book in which Kymera grows up.  There was a lot of the book that I thought was dark and disturbing.  Just two chapters in, I told my wife, “This is a really good book, but you shouldn’t read it.  Something bad happens to a bunny.”  My wife really doesn’t like it when bad things happen to animals in books.  I respect that.  Everyone has their things.

A few more chapters in, I said, “Yeah… you definitely shouldn’t read this book.  It’s really messed up.”  And I kept reading it, and finished it two days later, because everything that happened lead to something else happening, and I needed to keep reading to find out what.

I don’t think I can write about much past the beginning.  The sick girls in their quarantine prison, the secrets of the wizard’s power, the dragon, the two kings, the castle by the sea, it all needs to appear to you at the right time in the story.

I read a review on Goodreads from someone who hated this book because she expects plot twists to be surprising, and she saw the major twist of this plot coming from very early in the book.  I saw it coming, too, and you probably will, too, before you’ve made it halfway through the novel. But that didn’t make me hate the book.  I don’t think the point was that the author wanted to surprise me, the reader.  I thought the point was that the author and I were watching poor Kymera, and that we have figured out what she doesn’t yet know, and we watch her, hoping that she will be able to handle that inevitable twist when it comes.  Twists don’t have to surprise the reader to work well in a book.

I am very, very happy to see that there’s a sequel, Ravenous, coming out in 2016.  It’s already on my to-read list.

Written by Contented Reader

July 1, 2015 at 10:16 am

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