Contented Reader

just point me toward the nearest library


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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.


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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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Neverending Stories Books, Franklin, PA

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Some people, when they go on vacation, look for natural beauty – where can they go hiking, and experience trees and plants different from the ones at home?  Probably one walk in the woods is about as pleasant as another one, but somehow, doing it in a faraway woods seems more exciting than doing it in the park five miles from home.  And maybe it is – you might see some new plant or animal you’ve never seen before.

Some people, when they go on vacation, look for shopping destinations.  In the age of the internet, there’s rarely any reason to actually leave home to go shopping, but still, going shopping in new stores feels like increasing the chances of discovering some new treasure in a way that browsing on Etsy doesn’t.

Me?  I rarely travel without visiting a bookstore.  Some trips have destination bookstores, like The Strand in New York, or Forbidden Planet in London, or Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash in Red Bank, New Jersey – two of those are bookstores that I went to considerable inconvenience to visit.  But even when there isn’t a destination bookstore, I always keep my eyes open.

A person might think that, in the age of the internet, there’s no reason to seek out new bookstores, but there’s something special about a bookstore that you can’t get online.  Sure, yes, I can log onto Amazon and get whatever book my internet friends just told me about.  I can even get it delivered electronically by Kindle or Overdrive, and be reading it within minutes of wanting to read it.  But it’s often in a bookstore that the serendipity happens, browsing with an open mind and stumbling on some new favorite that I never knew I needed until I saw it.  Besides, I like being in bookstores.  Being surrounded by books makes me feel safe and relaxed and happy no matter where I am.

On my vacation to visit family in Pennsylvania, I stopped at Neverending Stories Books, in Franklin.  What a great town Franklin is.  It’s not big, but a person could have a very pleasant day browsing around in its shops.  We had just the morning, so we looked at alpaca socks and hats at Hatched, and had tea and coffee at Bossa Nova, and bought delicious snacks at the Corner Cupboard.  The highlight, as usual for me, was the bookstore.

Neverending Stories startled me somewhat by being in the basement.  I walked in the door, and at first, there was no bookstore.  It only took me a moment to work out that I should follow the broad wooden stairs down, and the first thing I saw was the ‘free books’ shelf.  Then the store itself, a quirky, long shape in which the space was used well.  To the left, used fiction and children’s books, with books hanging on the wall in bookbox picture frames as well as neatly arranged on shelf.  To the right, used nonfiction, and a good comic book section.  In the middle, local authors and new books. There was a display table front-and-center that I suspect might have housed the summer reading assignments for the schoolchildren of Franklin, PA, but I didn’t ask.

The young person on duty was friendly without being pushy, and I didn’t even really need to ask to know that she wasn’t just a hireling, but the proud owner whose personality shone through all the little touches that make a locally owned bookstore so much more fun to visit than a big chain.  We chatted briefly, then she showed me to the day’s treasure – a ginormous pile of back issues of Lapham’s Quarterly,  She was selling them for the astonishing bargain price of $1 each!  Don’t go to the store to look for them, I bought all of them except a handful that I already have.  I am so excited!  In a summer when I don’t have much money to spend, new books I couldn’t otherwise afford!

I’ll definitely make a point of heading down to the basement bookstore again when I am in Franklin.

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June 30, 2015 at 9:52 pm

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by Christian Rudderdataclysm

Crown Publishing, 2014

When I checked this book out at the library, I was expecting a completely different book.  I like the one I got a lot better.

I thought I was borrowing a book about the dangers of ‘big data.’  Watch out!  Web sites are collecting your personal data and selling information to companies and governments!  There’s nothing you can do, and the consequences are dire, dire, dire!  I already know that, and, like most Americans, have decided to accept the dire consequences as a reasonable trade for being able to have instant access to my second-cousins’ political conspiracy theories.  If I hadn’t given in to Big Data years ago, I probably would have no idea whatsoever that President Obama has already constructed the concentration camps in which Christians and Republicans will be incarcerated after he refuses to give up the presidency in 2017 (or so my distant relative once claimed on Facebook).  Information like that is well worth giving Amazon full access to all of my hopes and dreams.  That’s the book I thought I was borrowing.  I wasn’t that excited about it – in fact, it was with a certain reluctance that I took it off the shelf – but I wanted to give it a chance, because it was recommended by someone whose opinions I respect.

This was a completely different book than that.

Christian Rudder works for OKCupid, which means that he has access to massive amounts of data about people’s lives.  In the course of looking for a date, people post their pictures and tell something pretty close to the truth about themselves.  Rudder also has access to the other data – what people actually do on OKCupid, and how it does or doesn’t correlate with what they say is true about themselves.

This book is an exploration of the some of the data that the internet has gathered, and what we can learn from it.  Rudder doesn’t judge the existence of the data.  He’s doing something different: he’s using it to describe who we are.  Would it surprise you to learn that, although most men say that they’re interested in dating someone around their own age, most men of all ages are really trying to get with a 20-year-old?

No, that didn’t surprise me, either.  It also didn’t surprise me that Belle and Sebastian is the Whitest Band on Earth, or that a lot of people who claim not to be racists don’t really like black people very much.  I was fascinated by the way Rudder uses Google data to make what seems like a very reasonable guess about the percentage of the population that is gay (that’s a number that’s really hard to pin down, I know), and the ways American attitudes about race adjusted when President Obama took office.

His writing style was really several notches above most of the pop-nonfiction books I read, too.  I admit that I must be an elitist, because I wasn’t expecting a math/computer guy to be such a good writer.

I would read this again.

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June 24, 2015 at 4:38 pm

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Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

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Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

By Jules Evans

New World Library, 2013

In my college humanities courses, I studied a little bit about philosophy.  I learned the names of important philosophers, and to summarize their teachings, and in some cases, I learned how those philosophers influenced the literature and politics of their time, or were influenced by them.  As far as I remember, I didn’t learn that philosophy could be a tool for improving myself and my life in college.  That, I learned on my own.

About five years ago, a post on Boing Boing, of all places, led me on a journey of discovery of ancient Greek philosophy.  Epictetus and Epicurus became my guides to a new way of living and thinking, and I kept their writings on my desk at work for several years, reading and re-reading them, and applying their advice to my life.

From Epictetus, I learned classical stoicism, starting with the utterly simple and utterly transformative idea that in life, there are things that we can control and things that we can’t control, and that the best approach to life is to take firm action regarding the things we can control, and accept the things we can’t control without resisting them or complaining about them.  That was the advice I used to transform my life at work, as I tried to stop complaining about the aspects of my job I couldn’t change and empower myself to make changes to keep my pile of ungraded papers and my roomful of unruly students within self-defined limits of what I was willing to put up with.

From Epicurus, I learned that happiness is the goal of every human being, and that happiness can be very obtainable when we allow ourselves to enjoy simple, easy-to-get pleasures and let go of the desire for expensive, harmful pleasures.  I learned to ask myself questions like, “Is the amount of pleasure I’m going to get from this likely to be greater than the amount of discomfort and trouble it’s going to cause?” and “What would feel good right now?”  I stopped buying stuff, and started enjoying library books, sunshine, parks, and rice.

Between them, Epictetus and Epicurus made a lot of aspects of my life better.  But I felt like I was the only person who had discovered their secret.  Their names sound like something you vaguely remember studying in college, like homework, not like self-help or pleasure reading.  It didn’t take me long to realize that no one wanted to know what I’d discovered, so, in good Epicurean spirit, I just quietly used it and enjoyed it and let go of my need to fix other people.

This book – Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations – reminded me of how much my life was transformed by those two philosophers, and told me something I didn’t know: that there are other people who have also had their lives transformed.  Each chapter discusses an important philosophical approach, explains how it can be used to make a person’s life better, and introduces a person or group of people influenced by that philosopher.  All over the world, it turns out, people like me have been finding help and meaning and self-improvement in the works of the ancients, and have been forming tiny communities of like-minded people to share what they’ve learned.

Evans also spends a significant amount of time connecting ancient philosophy – especially my old mentors Epicurus and the Stoics – with the modern practice of cognitive behavioral therapy.  He claims that CBT has borrowed many of the ideas and practices of the Stoics and Epicureans, but in a stripped-down form, and that many people might benefit from using the old writers as a supplement to their therapy.

This book would be a great starting point for someone who wants to learn more about how ancient philosophy can make a person’s life better.  For me, it was a great refresher course, with an introduction to some voices I hadn’t heard before, and ideas for where to read further.

Written by Contented Reader

June 22, 2015 at 5:40 pm

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We Are Pirates

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We Are Pirates

Daniel Handler

Bloomsbury, 2015We Are Pirates

I had a really rough professional development day today.  These training days can be really rough on a teacher.  I had high hopes for this one, because the subject was one we really did need training on, and the training could have been successful if it had been as simple as putting us in a room with the materials and letting us work with them together.  But the paid consultants doing the training weren’t familiar with the requirements of our district, and ended up spending most of the day training us in things we aren’t going to be allowed to use.  It was deeply frustrating.

On my lunch break, sitting in the nearby cemetery, looking at a murky pond and a cherry tree in flower, I did find myself cheering up as I read We Are Pirates.  It’s about Gwen, a fourteen-year-old who is angry at the world, and how she is punished with volunteer time at the nursing home, and how she, and her best friend Amber, and the old man, Errol, decide to steal a boat and run away to be pirates in the San Francisco Bay.

As I was eating my tuna and crackers and trying to get a break from my frustrating teacher training day, the idea of throwing everything away to be a pirate sounded pretty appealing, and I was pulled through the book, which I found had both a page-turning quality and literary merit.  I love Lemony Snicket.  Daniel Handler… every book I’ve read of his has come so close to being something I’d treasure as a favorite, but somehow just barely missed the mark for me.  I thought this time, he had finally hit it.

When I came home, with a headache and a bad case of the educational cynicism, I was looking forward to reading the ending, and finding out what happened to Gwen and Amber and Errol.  But several of the surprising twists were a little too surprising for me.  The book took some shockingly dark turns – I don’t know why I was shocked, as I know that Handler writes some dark, nasty stuff, but I was.  A few of the surprises seemed unfair, not consistent with the characters and the world he had given me.

I read all the way to the end, and this isn’t a book I could have put down, even after it became clear that it wasn’t going at all where I thought it was.  But it’s going to join the other Daniel Handler books in the collection of his works that were so damn close but just didn’t quite work for me.

Years ago, when Handler was touring for the last Series of Unfortunate Events book, I went to hear him speak.  I also stayed up until pretty nearly two in the morning to get him to sign my copy, which I have no regrets about even though my bedtime is usually a firm 9:30 PM.  He talked about a book that he was working on.  In the book he described, a man who is a modern pirate, from Somalia or some such place, develops a longing to be the kind of pirate one reads about in adventure stories.  I don’t know if that book would have worked any better for me.  I know that sometimes, a writer finds that a project just doesn’t work out, and he has to go back to the drawing board.  And probably that book would also have been a near miss for me.  But I regret that I didn’t get to read it.

I wouldn’t write about this book if I hadn’t liked it.  I try to only write about books I like and want to share – why tell anyone about a book I didn’t like?  I debated whether to write about this one, or not.  Ultimately, even though it pissed me off a little, I can’t deny that I couldn’t stop reading it and that I won’t soon forget it.

I have a second day of training tomorrow, and I expect it’ll be just as bad as the first.  I’ll need a different book, to take to the cemetery with me.  Wish me luck.

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May 4, 2015 at 7:41 pm

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