Bookends: October 2019

Ah, October! Santa Ana winds, a three-day jaunt to the desert (the “real” desert, not the coastal Southern California desert), taking my kids to the thrift store to buy costume components…and reading a few books, including a decent stab at the October Dewey’s Readathon. I posted on Litsy during the Readathon. That’s where you can find most of my updates between Bookends posts these days, if you’d like more of that kind of thing.

A little visual interest before the book lists. This is The World Famous Crochet Museum in a converted drive-thru photo developing place in Joshua Tree, California:

IMG_20191030_095204

Finished in October (12):

The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

Chime by Franny Billingsley

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Weekby Tiffany Shlain

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Ohio by Stephen Markley (audio)

The Changeling by Victor LaValle (audio)

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James

The Odyssey by Homer (Emily Wilson translation, read-aloud with my children)

Less by Andrew Sean Greer (audio)

Uprooted by Naomi Novik (audio)

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty (audio)

Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo

Currently Reading:

The Girl in Red by Christina Henry

The Existentialist’s Survival Guide by Gordon Marino

Black Ships Before Troy by Rosemary Sutcliffe (read-aloud with my son, who will still snuggle with me on the couch if I read to him)

To-Read for November:

Subject to change, as always, but here are some I particularly want to hit:

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo

And I have some middle-grade novels I’d like to work on.

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Bookends: September 2019

This month’s book totals are a little inflated due to the picture books and early readers I read for the Birth and Beyond Reading Challenge (#BBRC) on Litsy.

Still, even counting only the “grown-up” books, this month was pretty solid. I credit staying up past midnight, adding caffeine back into my diet, and ignoring the housework.

Kids’ Books (12):

Rude Cakes by Rowboat Watkins

Chase’s Space Case by Nickelodeon Publishing

The Case of the Scaredy Cats by Crosby Bonsall

Jump by David McPhail

Golden Retriever by Charlie George

Saturday Belongs to Sara by Cathy Warren

Fast Food by Saxton Freymann

The Egyptian Cinderella by Shirley Climo

You Silly Goose by Ellen Stoll Walsh

Victor Vito and Freddie Vasco by Laurie Berkner

Up and Down (The Boy, #4) by Oliver Jeffers

Tar Beach by Faith Ringgold

Grown-up Books (10):

Inland by Téa Obreht

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide by Kay Redfield Jamison

The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can: Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer by Gretchen Reynolds

Moody Bitches: The Truth About the Drugs You’re Taking, The Sleep You’re Missing, The Sex You’re Not Having, and What’s Really Making You Crazy by Julie Holland

Oksana, Behave! by Maria Kuznetsova (audio)

The Perfect Nanny by Leïla Slimani (audio)

The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

Currently Reading:

Chime by Franny Billingsley

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Schlain

And I’m still working on Emily Wilson’s Translation of Homer’s The Odyssey.

To-Read for October:

October is a bit up in the air. I have a couple of books out from the library that I’ll probably start on:

The Farm by Joanne Ramos

Ohio by Stephen Markley (on audio)

I’m due for another Libro.fm credit, so I plan to get another audiobook after 2pm on October 5.

I hope to be seasonal and pick up some scary reads. I prefer literary, psychological, bizarre/unsettling and/or gothic horror/suspense to blood-and-guts, straight-up genre stuff. Authors like Daphne duMaurier (The Birds), Shirley Jackson (The Haunting of Hill House), Lauren Beukes (Broken Monsters), Kelly Link (Get in Trouble), Gin Phillips (Fierce Kingdom), Sarah Waters (The Little Stranger).

Any suggestions?

What’s on your nightstand this month?

Epic Battles for Middle School

My son is using Don and Jenny Killgallon’s Paragraphs for Middle School as part of his writing curriculum this year. The idea is to introduce writing concepts, illustrate them with passages from literature, have the student identify and imitate the techniques used in the passages, then have the student practice the techniques in their own writing. I was a little skeptical of the approach at first, but it really seems to be working for my son.

From the moment he first grabbed a marker and wrote his name on the dining room wall, writing has always been his thing, but he’s not always been keen on exploring the mechanics of the process. Paragraphs helps him learn about the nitty-gritty while doing the writing that he enjoys, which is mostly epic battle scenes a la Lord of the Rings and D&D. I’ve included an example below from an assignment to practice a variety of sentence openers while narrating a scene with a lot of action. I don’t understand all of it, but I think he’s succeeded. I also think I’m going to encourage some more gentle reading. (I only counted the final paragraph for his assignment, but he feels that the lead-in is necessary to set the mood.)


The sounds of war thundered through the huge keep of Nerdath, a skullcracking wave of sound from tens of hundreds of destrachans blazing sound pulses at the walls from all directions.

Thump-thump-thump.

Those were Asmodeus’s legion devils, the more powerful ice, bearded, and bone devils, a few archdevils, and half a million imps.

Thud-thud-BOOM.

Thud-thud-BOOM.

That was the orcs and the hobgoblins, leading behemoths and titans to batter down the walls.

Thunk-thud-thunk-thud-thunk-thud.

Those were more orcs and those uruk-hai, with their fearsome worg and guulvorg mounts.

Slam-crash-thud-crash-slam.

Giant goristros and other brutal battlebiars, destroying everything in their path as they dragged huge clubs and siege machines, charging towards the castle.

Vorp-flicker-vorp-flicker.

Those were the flittering beholders, with clouds and clouds of harpies, imps, and all manner of rocs, phoenixes, and giant eagles.

Crunch-smack-crunch-smack.

And those were the enormous, terrifying spiders and snakes, with little yuan-ti dragging anathemas and hordes of drow, closing the gaps between the orcs and the hobgoblins.

Squelch-wriggle-wriggle-squelch.

I averted my eyes as a wave of red ooze covered in eyes and fanged mouths rolled across the ground, enveloping everything edible in their path. These were the gibbering beasts of the Far Realm, paving the way for a thundering, rampaging battle-host of beholders, foulspawn, balhannoths, destrachans, chuuls, carrion crawlers, mind flayers, aboleths, and swarms of kuo-toa with harpoons and spears and sahuagin guards to go along.

KA-BOOM!!!

With a tremendous roar and a slam, all the beasts of burden charging the walls met with a thunderous crash, which split the battlements asunder. The evil armies poured in, in the tens of thousands. I found myself locked in combat with five evistros and a huge minotaur, only to find them hushed away by the pointing finger of a large blue humanoid. Where he pointed, men shouted in agony and fell dead. Savage balor demons, vast titans, spiders bigger than elephants, and dragons swinging claws and tails, stood out sharply among the dull, armored mass of orcs, legion devils, and foulspawn. I lopped off a carnage demon’s head, and narrowly missed a stream of acid from a huge dragon lumbering toward me, heedless of the dozens of creatures caught below its stabbing claws. It fired another jet of acid at me, which I barely dodged, and I found myself in the middle of a mass of orcs. I sliced through them and won, but then I saw that the demonic foes were swarming through the outer city. They were a wave of creatures, breaking through Nerdath’s defenders like water dislodging rocks from the ground. Skilled gnome archers were knocked from the splitting walls, and I swung my sword with all my force. It tore through the body of a vast minotaur with a critical blow that sundered the bestial creature into two pieces. But I felt my strength begin to lag. First, the minotaur’s top half swung an arm and knocked me back twenty feet, into a horde of thirty legion devils. Their eyes were without feeling or senses, their faces dull, almost bored, as they hacked me with their blades and trampled me beneath their iron-shod heels. I was in a swirl of pain. The world faded to black around me.

Hazards of Time Travel by Joyce Carol Oates

Plot summary, gleaned from the book jacket flap:

“A recklessly idealistic girl dares to test the perimeters of her tightly controlled (future) world and is punished by being sent back in time to a region of North America—‘Wainscotia, Wisconsin’—that existed eighty years before. Cast adrift in time in this idyllic midwestern town, she is set upon a course of ‘rehabilitation’—but cannot resist falling in love with a fellow exile and questioning the constraints of the Wainscotia world with results that are both devastating and liberating.”

I don’t quite get what Oates is trying to do with this novel. Every time she provides something, some question or scene that leaves the narrator confused but that has significance to me as a reader, she has another character provide the analysis. She doesn’t let me fill in the blanks, and that’s profoundly frustrating to me. For example, our narrator, Adriane/Mary Ellen, recalls something she’d witnessed on a television monitor as proof for the way she understands the world. “Hadn’t I witnessed?” she asks. “Hadn’t I seen?” I read this on a day rife with news about deepfake videos, and I thought, “Aha! This is what Oates means! In the world of her novel, people can’t trust their senses, just like in our reality!” I was just getting excited about this when another character fills in that blank: “There is absolutely no way for an ordinary citizen to distinguish a ‘virtual’ staging from an ‘actual’ event.” (219-220)

Interesting point, but it would have been even more interesting if I’d had the chance to get there on my own.

Oates is saying something very important about conditioning and learned helplessness and how we willingly keep ourselves contained in imaginary cages, how difficult it is even to determine whether the cage is real or imaginary, but she doesn’t let this just happen. She gives our narrator a psychology class and an interest in reading about B.F. Skinner beyond the curriculum, thereby spoon-feeding the reader the significant points. She also has the turning point in the development of the dystopian future/present be 09/11/2001 and the passage of the Patriot Act, and while the quick acceptance by the voting public and elected officials on both sides of the aisle of the curtailment of civil liberties in the wake of those terrorist attacks was alarming and probably symptomatic of an inclination of the public to accept a consolidation of power contrary to The Constitution if it’s framed as a paternalistic effort to “protect” us, drawing a direct line between that event and Oates’s future feels too simplistic.

One thing that intrigues me in the novel, however, is what Oates thinks of protests. She’s set up the place of exile as a mundane location, a place that celebrates mediocrity, a place where people with ambition spin their wheels without any hope of accomplishing anything of importance. The people who are content here include mediocre poets, professors who are uninterested in exploring beyond their own ideas, artists who accept limitations on their art because they want/need to receive commissions, and activists who engage in protests on the campus of small liberal arts colleges in the Midwest. Lumping all of these things together suggests that each is equally futile. As someone who attempted to engage in activism on the campus of a small liberal arts college in the Midwest, this seems an accurate assessment of the effectiveness of such activism.

What isn’t futile in Oates’s world? Is there an actual cage, or is it only imagined?

Good, interesting questions, but the novel fell short of being interesting in itself.

I’ve been attempting to read novels with an eye for how they might help me build my own character. This one’s a tough one, but I think the lessons are fairly basic: When I feel constrained, are the barriers real or am I imagining them? When I feel content and free, is this freedom real or am I imagining it? And the more dangerous question, the one that easily leads to an existential abyss: Are the things I’m doing of lasting significance? It’s a good question, but one that I’ll approach with caution.

Flaking Out: An Eczema Update

In the seven years since I published my first post about eczema, several people have written expressing interest in an update. I’m less inclined to blog about skin issues than I used to be, but since people seem to be itching for follow-up, here’s an update.

In answer to the, “Did it ever go away?” question: Yes! It took a long time and a lot of work, which I’ll talk about below, but it went away.

In answer to the unasked, “Did it stay away?” question: Alas! no. After nearly four years, it came back. But I blame myself, which I’ll talk about below as well.

How it went away:

After two years of trying lotions and potions and contortions with no lasting effect, I found out about the TQI Diet (aka To Quiet Inflammation Diet, aka Abascal Way, aka the Vashon Island Diet). Developed by Kathy Abascal*, it’s a way of eating that’s designed to reduce inflammation in the body. It consists of an initial period of strictly eliminating common inflammatory foods (e.g., dairy, sugar) followed by a testing phase to identify triggers specific to one’s individual body and to help develop a long-range eating plan particular to you and your needs.

One thing I like about the Abascal Way is its flexibility. The cornerstone is proportional eating: at least 2/3 of each meal or snack should be vegetables and/or fruits. What’s in the remaining 1/3 is up to the individual. After the Elimination Phase, you can eat most anything, provided it’s proportional, minimally processed, and works for you.

The Abascal Way didn’t work for me immediately. In fact, for the first several weeks, things got worse. My eczema spread, I was getting migraines weekly, and there were a couple of other symptoms I won’t list here. My spouse asked me why I didn’t quit if it wasn’t working. “I have no other options,” I said, and I stuck with it.

After about two months, it was like a switch got flipped. All of a sudden, everything was better. For the first time in two years, I had no eczema, no migraines. It was brilliant! Except for one day a week when I let myself have popcorn and whiskey, I never came off of the Elimination Phase, but it was well worth it.

That kept up with little indulgences (birthdays, travel) until last year when we moved to San Diego.

How it came back:

This is the sad part of the story, but it’s a sadness of my own creation. During the travel we did before the move followed by the move itself followed by the glee of being in San Diego, I let my Abascal habits slip.

In my defense, Abascal eating during travel is a significant challenge, and I’m weird with travel eating in the best of circumstances (I’m someone who loses weight on vacation, and not in a good way). But once we were in our new place, I didn’t have that excuse. I was still eating a healthy diet—no sweeteners, no gluten, no dairy, and I’d quit drinking alcohol entirely in March of 2017 (which is a topic for a different post)—but I wasn’t focused on proportional eating, and I ate popcorn and gluten-free toast much more often than once a week.

And so the eczema came back. Just a little bit at first, off and on, then more persistently. It was when I had my first migraine since 2015 that I knew I had to get back into the Abascal groove for real, but even with that, it’s been several months of false starts before I recommitted for real.

It’s been a week now of strict Abascal, and the eczema around my right eye has gotten much worse (bad enough that I will not be posting pictures of it, so you’ll have to trust me on this one). But I’m sticking with Abascal in the hopes that, like before, this is the “worse” before the “better.”

And that is my riveting eczema story, complete with cliffhanger ending.

*As far as I know, Kathy Abascal has no idea I’ve been on her diet nor that I’m writing about it now. I purchased all materials related to The Abascal Way, including the book and the cookbook, on my own at retail prices and without discounts. I mention it here only because it’s what I’ve done and what’s helped me. Your results, as they say, may vary.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

In the late 90’s/early aughts, Volkswagen had an ad campaign with the tagline, “Drivers Wanted.” Even in my early 20’s I was a jaded consumer of advertising. I knew I was being manipulated by marketing, but I would watch the commercials and think, “I’m a driver.” And I bought a Volkswagen. I mean, I spent two years doing research before I bought it so it was a reasoned choice, but I suspect the ads helped me feel good about the decision.

Moshfegh’s writing speaks to me in a way similar to the way those VW ads spoke to me. Both seem to confirm something in me that I already believe about myself.

In a way, this is a novel of false hope. The narrator and her friend are my age, the youngest of the GenXers, moving into adulthood as a blue dress brings down a president and as airplanes bring down skyscrapers. They are each parentless in one way or another, each trying to make sense of the world in her own way, trying to cleanse the body and the mind and the spirit and come out the other side pure and serene and with, if not understanding, at least acceptance for the myriad ways in which the world is effed up. And (spoiler alert) the narrator succeeds. She declutters beyond all decluttering, she empties herself and her world, and is left with the realization that the future is being created in every moment, and in every moment she is creating the future, and that none of it makes a difference, really, at all.

Which is a kind of freedom, and it’s a true freedom. The trouble is that freedom doesn’t stick with us. We can’t interact with the world and maintain that level of equanimity. You go on the yoga retreat or the silent meditation retreat or the epic bender, but life always sneaks back in. No matter how quietly you tiptoe about, the crap of the world is ready to ease its way back in, along with the false hope that the things we do really mean something.

Um, yeah. So. I’m not sure if Moshfegh’s writing speaks to me because it’s great writing or if Moshfegh just writes in a language I understand. Either way, it speaks to me.

Drivers Wanted.

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Usually, I like reading books quickly. I like immersing myself in the world, a quick dive to the bottom of the pool and then back up again for a deep breath and the return of the pull of gravity on my limbs. If I take a long time reading a book, it’s because it’s difficult to read somehow, wordy in a nineteenth-century way or full of page-long sentences like those written by the literary Wunderkinder of the early twenty-first century or populated with a cast of thousands that I need notecards to keep track of.

This novel I read slowly for none of these reasons. History of Wolves drew me into the depths, past the hovering walleye, to a murky, beautiful place full of muffled sounds and a stinging cold from which I was in no rush to return.

Every word of this novel reaches deep. Fridlund wastes nothing. Linda’s memories of belonging and joy are so closely tied to memories of betrayal and pain that she can’t look at either directly. As we read, she circles around and around, getting close to the story and then drawing back, touching back on memories that take on one meaning in the first telling and another in the next. Fridlund puts the reader directly into Linda’s mind, and while it’s not always a comfortable place to be, it’s painfully real. This novel demands a slow read to savor each morsel, to roll each word over the tongue like a pebble.

A friend and I were talking about the difference between a novel about a young adult and a YA novel, and while there are perhaps some generalizations to be made about purpose and literary merit, at the root the difference seems to be one of subtlety. Most YA novels I’ve read at one point or another explain the conflicts of the characters directly, telling the reader explicitly that the main character feels alienated because despite some specific difference—poverty or learning disability or supernatural ability—she’s trying to be accepted by her peer group while remaining an individual. Linda feels the loneliness of a teenager trying to determine her place in the world, trying to feel accepted without blending in, but Fridlund shows all of this indirectly and more clearly and honestly than if she’d just written it outright.

I love this novel. I love the flawed, horrible, beautiful people. I love following Linda through the lakes and the woods, the slush and the mud, and the smell of pine sap and wet dog. I love seeing her poor decisions and her good decisions and the blurred dividing line between the two.

I’ve been reading novels lately with an eye for how they might help me improve my own character, and I can see two lessons that this book offers me on this front.

First is the reminder to experience everything. Hear each bird, smell each pinecone, taste each tropical Skittle, and note our relationship to these things because the same thing can seem different depending on the circumstances.

The second is to question my assumptions. Are the conclusions I’m drawing about the way the world works or about how the people around me act based on a sound premise? Am I leaving something out or missing a piece of the story that would allow me to understand a situation better? Are my assumptions blinding me to situations or evidence that might challenge my understanding of the world and of myself?

I have no memory of how this novel ended up on my to-read list, but I am so glad it was there and that it was on the shelves at my local library when I was looking for something to read.

The Third Hotel by Laura van den Berg

There’s an episode of the podcast “Hidden Brain” about counterfactuals. Counterfactuals are basically a reimagining of past events, an answer to “what if?” and all of the events that cascade from a different choice or circumstance.

The episode is specifically about counterfactual thinking in the wake of tragedy. The woman whose story they share talks about how just before she and her husband ascended the mountain on which he would be killed in an avalanche, he told her that he had a bad feeling about the day. Together they’d decided to continue with their plans. If nothing had happened, she might not even have remembered that conversation. But because something did happen, something very bad, she reviews that instant and imagines what would have happened if she had suggested that they just skip the trip.

The Third Hotel is essentially an account of Clare’s counterfactual. What if Richard hadn’t died? What if she’d acted on the signs she’d been noticing in him for months? What if they’d both been more open with each other from the beginning of their relationship? She takes the trip to Cuba they’d planned to take together, and she replays their relationship, digging into details she and he had never addressed during their life together, trying to put the pieces together into a narrative that makes sense, and trying to come to grips with the unknowable.

The woman in the podcast was seeking some locus of control, something she could have done to change the outcome, and she focused in on that moment before their trip that seemed like a crossroads. This led, to one degree or another, to a sense of responsibility for her husband’s death. Clare feels a similar sense of responsibility and blame but without a single moment to look at, she sees her husband’s death as an accumulation of poor choices and in some ways even a result of a flaw in her own character. She imagines not just that she could have stopped his death, but that she was the one who killed him, and neither she nor the reader can be certain that this isn’t the case.

In her blurb on the back cover, Lauren Groff writes that “you read [Laura van den Berg’s] work always a bit perturbed.” This was definitely my experience. The novel is dizzying, the line between reality and Clare’s imagination blurred. I oscillated between “I love this book!” and “Do I love this book?”

In addition to the main story, the novel addresses the three-way relationship between the author/artist/filmmaker, the story itself, and the audience. One character talks about the tacit agreement between the filmmaker and the audience of a horror film, a genre of which Clare’s husband was a scholar. “The screaming was only pleasurable because the audience knew the terror had an end,” he asserts.

Throughout the book, Clare is trying to place her life with Richard and his death into a narrative, a story with boundaries to comfort her with the knowledge that “the terror has an end.” As she traces her marriage back to its beginnings, Clare sees that the decision to marry someone in the first place carries with it the knowledge that, either through death or divorce, that relationship will end. A beginning implies an ending.

I’ve been reading everything lately with an eye for how I can use it to develop character in myself. In applying that filter to The Third Hotel, I’ve identified a primary idea with character-building potential: We can’t run from ourselves.

Like in a horror film where the victim is running frantically from a killer who walks steadily, methodically behind, no matter how fast we move whatever truth or pain or past we’re trying to evade will eventually catch up with us. It’s difficult to escape our patterns of behavior, difficult to stop running, but it happens whether we do it by choice or let it happen on its own. Sometimes (most times?) it boils down to being there in our relationships, with those we love and who love us, holding their hand, looking them in the eye, making physical contact while they cry, and allowing them to do these things for us. Our culture doesn’t encourage this simple but profound connection. It promotes independence and transactional relationships and solving problems by buying things rather than through the cultivation of family and community relationships. When it appears that our corporatocracy is encouraging us in these directions, take a closer look and you’ll generally find it’s actually an ad for a car or a credit card, an eyeliner or an app. It might look an awful lot like personal connection but peel back the veneer and it’s a ploy to get us to give away some aspect of ourselves—our thoughts, our preferences, our photos—that can be sold for someone else’s profit. And along the way we become convinced that we’re the mere sum of our parts, a collection of likes, dislikes and moments curated for public consumption.

So my takeaway is to maintain constant vigilance, to be aware always of who’s offering a solution to my particular problem and of who’s defining the problem in the first place. What are they selling and who stands to profit if I buy it? Does it bring me closer to people I love, closer to people in my community, closer to myself, or does it just offer the illusion of closeness? If all it costs me is money, it’s guaranteed to be the latter.

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

Reading this novel, I asked myself, why would the Nazis ban this book?

Because at first, it’s just a story of young men going to war narrated by Paul Bäumer. Boredom, irritation at rules, pulling pranks. What’s dangerous about this?

Soon it got more real, bodies and exhaustion and terror and blood. So, maybe this is what the Nazis, gearing up for a war and hoping to stir up young men enough that they’re willing to kill not only foreigners but their own countrymen. But don’t young men know what war is about? Killing and being afraid and dying? This reason seemed inadequate.

Later, though, came the passages that I think must have been the biggest reason this book was banned.

“It’s all rot that they put in the war-news about the good humour of the troops, how they are arranging dances almost before they are out of the front-line. We don’t act like that because we are in a good humour: we are in a good humour because otherwise we should go to pieces.” (140)

Remarque threatens the propaganda machine necessary to bring young men into service.

In Defying Hitler, Sebastian Haffner’s memoir of growing up in Germany between the two World Wars, Haffner describes how the government promoted in schools the glorification of World War I, getting young boys to focus on maneuvers and strategy (something in which my own son is very interested) rather than on whether Germany should have been fighting the war in the first place. By hooking them with strategy and numbers and warcraft, the government got these children fired up about war so that, in a few years, they would enthusiastically enlist. The government at the time needed these young men to see World War I in terms of strategy with a motive so black-and-white it didn’t even warrant considering. Remarque’s novel does the opposite. It questions the reasons for war and the things those making the war say about it.

The men, during a moment of quiet, are discussing the relationship between “home-country” and “State.”

“But they go together,” insists Kropp, “without the State there wouldn’t be any home-country.”

“True, but just you consider, almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now just why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it’s merely the rulers.” […]

“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.

Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”

All Quiet on the Western Front, pp 205-206, Ballantine Books Trade Edition, 1996

In order for these young men to kill, they have to see those in front of their bayonets and hand grenades as not human, or at least as not worthy of life. They must not reflect on similarities between those in front of their rifle and those behind because the necessary conclusion would either be that none of them deserves to be killed or that none of them is worthy of life.

“We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation.” (113) If they don’t believe their own lives are worth defending, there’s no need to keep moving forward against the enemy. But there’s a safeguard against that: If one man finds it difficult to see the value in his own life, there’s the comrade next to him to defend.

Upon hearing his friends’ voices when he was lost in the dark, Bäumer says, “I am no longer a shuddering speck of existence, alone in the darkness;—I belong to them and they to me; we all share the same fear and the same life, we are nearer than lovers, in a simpler, a harder way; I could bury my face in them, in these voices, these words that have saved me and will stand by me.” (163)


If the bonds of country and the instinct for self-preservation are insufficient to keep a person fighting, there are the bonds of friendship to fall back on.

Remarque’s Bäumer is stuck. He sees the human in those in front of him, but he also sees himself and his friends as human. To believe both and still fight is incompatible with sanity. And yet he has to keep fighting because that common man over there is trying to kill him and the only way out is to kill the other man first. His choices at this point are severely limited.

This is how war is set up. Those in power put into motion something that is self-perpetuating. They exploit the instinct for survival to get people with no real reason to kill each other to do just that.

This, I suspect, is why the Nazis banned this novel. Not because it describes the horrors of war, but because it lays bare the reasons the war is happening in the first place.

I’ve been trying to focus, when I read anything, on how the lessons in each book/article/poem can help me develop my own character. What in that piece of writing can I use to become morally and ethically stronger?

If I apply this question to All Quiet on the Western Front, there are a couple of takeaways, neither of which is particularly new to me.

One is that the way you get one person to kill another is either to make that other person seem not human or not worthy of life or get the other person to attack first, reducing the first person’s choices to “kill or be killed.” This applies to situations outside of war. It applies to Stand Your Ground laws. It applies to police killings, both those in which police do the killing and in which police are the ones killed. It also applies, I think, to domestic violence and sexual assault and human trafficking and other crimes that don’t necessarily end in the taking of life. It applies to border security and how to respond to a refugee crisis.

Related to this is the knowledge that seeing another person as human or not, as worthy of life or not, isn’t usually, or perhaps isn’t ever, simply a matter of the perspective of an individual. This dehumanizing is systemic, and it’s centuries, millennia old. Someone finds this structure useful to maintain. While there are those few whose benefit is obvious, we all share to one extent or another in the benefits of a system that dehumanizes other people. Because those benefits are so diffuse, it doesn’t work just to identify and remove from power those who obviously benefit, although this is a start. To reform the structure, we need to remove or neutralize the benefits themselves.

Having identified these points, I don’t really know what’s actionable in either of them. The development of character isn’t necessarily about action; it’s about readying oneself to make the most moral and ethical choices possible when the opportunity for action arises. But still, writing a book review or a blog post feels entirely inadequate, like maybe doing nothing is better.

“How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies or of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands.” (263)

Does the fact that this appears in his novel mean that Remarque is arguing that his novel itself is senseless or “of no account”? If this is true, where does this leave us? I suppose it leaves us—or me, at least—with an existential crisis, as usual.

Read as part of my Cavalcade of Classics challenge.

24in48 January 2019 Wrap-up

Well. I’m done.

Working breakfast on Sunday

Actually, I’ve been done since 9:00 last night when I finished All Quiet on the Western Front just before my alarm went off signalling the end of the readathon, but I decided to sleep before posting my wrap-up.

I estimate that I got in about sixteen hours of reading, which is well short of 24 hours, but not bad overall.

I finished a total of three books.

Two of these—Winter by Ali Smith and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque—I started before the readathon.

The third—Sleep No More by Aprilynne Pike—I read start to finish on Saturday.

I’ve participated in enough readathons now to have developed some guidelines for making them work for me:

Unwritten rule: schedule in breaks to play board games with my family to distract them from the fact that I’m not cooking all weekend.
  1. Choose a TBR that’s smaller than I’d like. This is not the time to be super-ambitious. Pick three or four books that really interest me and maybe one or two alternates.
  2. Include at least one YA or graphic novel in my TBR. YA and graphic novels go quick and give a sense of satisfaction when I see the whole book lying there in my “finished” pile.
  3. Include at least one audiobook. This rule is more important for me during 24-hour readathons. During the 24in48, I have enough leeway to get up and move that I don’t have to be reading the entire time. For example, this time, I went with my family on Sunday morning to play some basketball, but during Dewey’s, I choose to go for a long, long walk and listen to audiobooks to get my reading in while I move around.
  4. Scope out a reading nook or three. This is has been a problem for me in our new house. It’s got an open floorplan and not only is there literally nowhere to go that isn’t noisy when my family are home, I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring out a good place to put the furniture for a solid reading spot. It’s not perfect, but I have a little nook in our front room that works okay. I need to scope out a place away from the house, though.
  5. Be prudent about social media. It’s easy for me to get sucked into social media for an hour or more, so I need to be careful to limit myself. I only post on Instagram every six hours or so and on my blog for kickoff, half-time, and wrap-up. I miss out on some of the “community” aspects of the readathon, but it keeps me reading for more of the time.

And that’s pretty much it. I would love to develop some guidelines around snacks—like not buying a huge bag of salt and vinegar kettle chips at Costco at the beginning of the readathon—but that will have to wait for the next readathon, which might not be until October. The next 24in48 is July 20-21, and the next Dewey’s is April 6, but I’ve got family responsibilities during both of those. *sigh*