Recent reading: Gravity, by W. Scott Olsen

A couple of days ago I finished reading Gravity, The Allure of Distance, by W. Scott Olsen. I bought it a few years ago. It called to me for all the predictable reasons. It’s a paperback. The cover shows an empty highway, a sign for Exit 0, and the kind of big-distance, big-sky terrain that felt like home the first time I saw it (and promptly got heat-induced delirium, because that was in the Mojave and it was the first time I’d spent real time in the desert, but that’s another story).


The book took me a long time to read.

It puzzled me that that was so. The writing is beautiful. The terrain described is beautiful. The author’s sense of what it is like to get on the highway and just keep going, the pull of six or eight big lanes and semi trucks running seventy or eighty miles an hour and motels in the middle of nowhere that you pull into late at night, of gas station rest stop food and diners in the middle of nowhere, seems like a relative of mine. The pull of empty roads through deserted passes, the exhilaration of steep cliffs and jagged rock formations in the middle of nowhere (but is it really nowhere, if the pull is so strong?), is familiar too.

And that’s when I realized: the trouble I had with this book is that it made too much sense to me. It was like reading the inside of my own head, or recalling my own memories. Not to say that I’ve driven the Dempster highway, or stepped over the Arctic circle, or have any desire to – I haven’t been to the Yukon, and thus far when it comes to big deserted open spaces I bias more toward heat than ice. But the mental and emotional perspective of heading for out there, of defining home as how far I can get driving in a day (how long is a day? is it from waking to sleeping? variable, then – and I recall the time I made it from Albuquerque to Indio before stopping for a hotel, then successfully negotiated a bargain because it was so late at night), makes sense to me.

So I read the book. And as I read it, I kept putting it down, because it covered territory already known to me.

Things I’m reading

Today is Thursday night, for me week 7 of shelter-in-place/work-from-home/etc.

Things I’m reading:

Things I’m grateful for:

  • Somebody at work wants to start a book club, with books not about work.
  • Sun.
  • The peas are up! And the kale! And the beans! And the melons! And the spinach! They’re all up about a quarter of an inch, but still. They’re up! And there’s one ripe strawberry, which I’m hoping to eat before a squirrel does.
  • That our house, the house of the Horrible House Remodel, came with an Awesome Garden. We at least partially bought the house because of it, and yet. The Awesome Garden is even more awesome than I realized. The past several weeks have offered me much more time to spend in it, and I love it.
  • That we got the new fence and raised vegetable garden beds in before shelter-in-place.
  • Clear air, and the views over the southern & eastern hills.
  • Two days ago, the deer that hang out in the far yard eyed me carefully while I sat on a bench under a tree. I held very still, and they carefully walked right past me and continued on their way to graze on whatever they wanted to graze on.
  • Having a kitchen, and a heating system.
  • Having plenty to eat.
  • That my family is healthy.

People I miss:

  • My parents.
  • My nephew-by-friendship, and his parents.
  • My hiking buddy.
  • My afternoon-walk friend, and my mentee.
  • My college friend who just moved to California.

Things I’m surprised by:

  • How just plain exhausting videoconferences are.
  • My own lack of patience for said videoconferences; most large virtual meetings; project status updates; and other work-process type things.
  • How nice it is to be at home all day.
  • How not-stir-crazy I feel.
  • How I still feel busy (although, and I’m grateful for this, less than a week or two ago).
  • How easily we switched from eating out nearly every night (which started because no kitchen), to cooking nearly every night (because shelter in place).
  • The difference an ergonomic keyboard makes.

That is all.

Books I’m reading

… or have been reading lately:

Reader, Come Home, by Maryann Wolf
I loved this. Pulled me in, made me think, changed how I’m approaching a number of things in my life, including reading (prior blog post). I’m glad and thankful I read this, and that means I’m also glad and grateful it exists. Just outstanding.

Gould’s Book of Fish, by Richard Flanagan
Sort of a (dark) fairy tale or magic realism, sort of an unreliable narrator, sort of an indictment of the early convict years in Tasmania, sort of fantastical, with metaphorical beasts and fish and men…. I recognized that it was literarily worthy but it never fully pullled me in. Perhaps this was along the lines of “the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all”? Or perhaps it just wasn’t my taste.

The City and the Mountains, by Eca de Queros
The second time I’ve read this. A book with a message, arguably a morality tale, and I usually don’t love those – but this was so engaging that not only did I read it once, I kept it around and years later (ie last week) read it again. And I liked it just as much. The second time reading it, it seemed even more relevant than the first: this time I’ve been to rural Spain, which yes is not Portugal, and it’s a hundred years later, but at least the physical landscape isn’t too far away; and this time I’m thinking a lot about information and distraction and overwhelm and the tradeoffs of things coming in vs being or doing (or not-doing) oneself. All that makes it sound boring or dry, but really it’s just fun. It’s also a peaceful and calming sort of thing to read before bed, even during a tumultuous week.

The Achievement Habit, by Bernard Roth
I think I’m about done reading books about productivity. There was nothing wrong with this one, but I keep falling back to the ones I really love (18 Minutes; The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck; Getting Things Done.) That said, a few insights worth noting:

  • Doing things is itself a habit or a muscle. Do stuff and it gets easier to do stuff.
  • The stuff that makes us crazy when other people do it is probably stuff we do ourselves (else we likely wouldn’t even notice when others do it).
  • Let go of concerns and/or tackle any given problem from a different angle by up-leveling the problem itself. Rephrased: ask “why” like a two year old and then answer that question instead.

The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth
I’m just a little way into this. It’s beautiful and wonderful and I love it and I’m so glad I’m reading it.

The End of Mr Y, by Scarlett Thomas
Just a little way into this one too. This is the second book by Thomas that I’ve read. Like the first (Our Tragic Universe) it’s both totally engaging and sneakily intellectual. In spite of that, I keep picking it up and putting it down and losing momentum – which I think is more about the number of books I’m currently reading and/or the amount of chaos in my life right now. So I am likely going to put it down more thoroughly for a while, and then start over.

F*ck Feelings, by Michael Bennett
I picked this up to look at in a bookstore because it had an amusing title and a bright yellow cover (yep, totally judging book by cover). I read a couple of pages and grinned at the book. It was just nice to read something that was both about how a) sometimes life is difficult and b) sometimes (often!) the thing to do is just get on with it anyway. Plus I have kind of a standing joke with a friend about how perhaps feelings are overrated, and what one needs to do is think things through rationally, and why do other people not get this?! And I often feel a sneaking kind of respect for the whole ‘stiff upper lip’ and dry humor approach to life that one finds in the more stereotypical bits of British humor. So, this was appealing. Then I read a couple of pages and felt better. Oh, the irony. There’s good odds I’ll read the rest of it, perhaps in tiny doses as required to deal with chaos.

New Selected Poems, by Les Murray
Because poetry is necessary, and Les Murray is great. I’m reading this one or two poems at a time, and at that rate it will take me a while to finish. I’m good with that. Things I like about Les Murray’s poetry: the sense of landscape and space and how specific it is. Also the use of such a wide variety of words, arranged in such a wide variety of ways.

And that’s all! For now, at any rate.