A Book I Liked

In the Distance
By Hernan Diaz
pub. 2017

“A Book I Liked” is a deliberate understatement.

In the Distance, roughly speaking, is about a man, Håkan, who immigrates to America from Sweden, intending to go to New York. Instead, he ends up in the American West, and the book recounts his adventures and misadventures throughout his life.

That summary is like saying Moby Dick is about a guy and a whale.

Diaz’ imagination in spinning the stories of the extraordinary events in Håkan’s life, the intensity of his depictions of them, and the harsh beauty of his prose easily explain the reason why this, his first novel, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. He had to wait until his second novel, Trust, in 2022, to actually win the Pulitzer. That’s a pretty good track record for your first two books.

In the Distance was so compelling that when I say I couldn’t put it down, that’s literal. I had to make myself go to bed the first night, and finished it within 24 hours. This is not a “beach read,” and some of the events are not to be read by the faint of heart, but if you’re looking for a gorgeous gut punch of a book, run, don’t walk, to the nearest library, bookstore, Libby app, or kindle near you.

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Sleepless? Try Boring Books!

Many years ago, I began listening to podcasts with headphones to help me go to sleep. It’s always talk, not music I want. Listening to that talk keeps my brain from focusing on whatever’s worrying or obsessing me at the moment.

I started with Stuff You Should Know, when it was just two guys talking and the occasional soothing title jingle. But over the years I have listened to a lot of different ones. Once ads became more common, it was harder to find one that didn’t occasionally have something butt in to the conversation that ruins my almost-sleep or that jars me awake.

About a year and a half ago, I went looking for something targeted at sleep specifically, and found Boring Books For Bedtime, by Sharon Handy. It is now my nightly companion.

Sharon reads from works in the public domain, mostly published on Project Gutenberg. U.S. copyright extends for 95 years, so the fact that they are in the public domain means currently that the books were published in 1928 or earlier. Many she chooses are much older than that. Most episodes are close to an hour long.

Some of the books she selects fall into several different genres—science, nature, cooking, history, philosophy. Plus there are plenty of quirky ones, which tend to be my favorites. I’m especially fond of Fry’s Practical Candy Maker (1884), the 1897 Sears catalog, The Book of Household Management (1861), Symmes Theory of Concentric Spheres (1826), The Railway Travellers Handy Book (1862), and The Manual of Egyptian Archaeology (1895).

While anything can be interesting to the right person, Sharon’s lovely contralto voice—which has gotten deeper over the years, if you listen to older episodes—sets the boring scene each time, washing over you and preparing you to be lulled to sleep: “Good evening, and thank you for joining me for another Boring Books for Bedtime. I hope tonight’s selection provides all the boredom your busy brain needs to quiet down and let you get some sleep. So find a comfortable spot. Adjust your volume. Take a nice, deep breath in….let it out slowly….and off we go….”

Boring Books is 100% listener supported and ad free for everyone. But if you want to show your appreciation for all the hours you don’t lie in the dark wishing you didn’t have insomnia, you can support Sharon on Patreon. Supporters get an additional episode a month, have access to .mp3s of all past episodes, and can find their favorite type in collections by topic. There are also links to versions with no music—the episodes in your podcast feed have a subtle background music, though I didn’t even notice it before I was a member and started listening music-free.  Find Boring Books for Bedtime on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Zzzzzz….

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My awesome nephews

I want to give a shout-out today to my three siblings. These guys really raised a bunch of good kids. I have seven nephews, who range in age from 29 to 47. They are all good guys, good dads (those who have children), and accomplished professionals. They are

–a civilian logistical engineer with the Air Force.
–a former missionary to Ethiopia, now the headmaster of a private school.
–an Iraq war vet, now a civilian intelligence specialist with the Army.
–an Iraq war vet, now the Athletic Director for a public school system.
–a pastor.
–a computer engineer who owns his own company.
–an ER doctor.

And going back a generation, shout-out to my parents. You don’t raise kids like the above without parents who raised you right in the first place.

Respect.

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Time Steals Away

When I started thinking about this topic, which so often happens due to an etymology I’ve seen, I found many expressions and quotes related to time being a thief.

The most common thing that came up was the first line to John Newton’s poem “A New Year’s Thought and Prayer” It reads, “Time, by moments, steals away.” Despite the poem’s unfortunate closing lines – “Let our prayer thy bowels move, Make this year a time of love!” – we can relate to its basic theme, which is that we should take advantage of time as it steals away our hours, days, and years. For a long list of “Time is a thief” quotes, check out this page.

I often come to English etymologies indirectly, through the Spanish etymologies I read on La palabra del día. Today’s word was clepsidra, a water clock that works on the same principle as an hourglass to measure time. Rather than sand running through it, water drips consistently, and the hours are marked on the sides of the bowl or glass. One of the advantages of it is that it can be used, unlike the sundial, when it’s dark. And until the development of the pendulum clock in the 17th century, it was the most accurate timepiece available.

I had never heard of this device, so I went to see if I could find the English equivalent, which I learned was spelled “clepsydra.”

You can easily see the etymology if you look. “Clep” comes from the Greek “kleptein,” meaning “to steal,” and the “ydra” element comes from Greek “hydor,” water. You’ll recognize those from “kleptomaniac” and the many words related to water, like “hydrate” and “hydroelectricity.”

Here are two examples, a photo from Jeremy Norman’s historyofinformation.com page, that shows the type where one bowl sits in another,


and an illustration clipped from hydrojing.com, a hydraulic engineering consultant firm in Spain. (Though it appears their consulting relates to more modern topics.) In this type, water flows from one vessel set higher into one below it.


I wear an analog watch, which chiefly serves to tell me that I’m almost late, though I’m almost always, almost on time. But time is a thief equally with a pendulum, the running of sand, the dripping of water, or a read-your-texts, count-your-steps modern contraption.

A few days ago, I asked somehow how he was, and he said, “Older than I’ve ever been.” I answered, “Just wait until tomorrow!” Because time steals away.

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Earworms and Beyond

I almost always have an earworm, that phenomenon where some song or other, often from the distant past, plays in your head over and over, sometimes for days.

I woke up with a particularly interesting one today. It harkens back to high school Spanish class, and I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard it since then. It goes…
“Eva María se fue, buscando el sol en la playa, con su maleta de piel, y su bikini de rayas.
Translation: “Eva María left, looking for the sun at the beach, with her leather suitcase and her striped bikini.”
This one is by the Madrid ’60s-’70s pop group Formula V (English). It is highly recommended listening. It will make you happy, regardless of the fuzzy old video and whether you can understand it or not. Their cute bow-tie tuxes and the lead singer’s dorky dancing will put a smile on your face, guaranteed.

My earworms are almost always a partial song, picking up at a random spot or tapering off into nothing. Another I had recently was
“…Rooms to let, 50 cents…Man of means by no means, KING OF THE ROAD!”
Go figure. How long has it been since I actually heard that one?
Roger Miller’s screaming, maniacal fans and his well-placed finger snaps are also worth a listen!

But the most prominent recently, having appeared consistently, or at least when some other song isn’t playing, is a hymn from my childhood called To God Be the Glory. It’s the most complete one I think I’ve ever had, and it gives me a fresh dose of evangelism every time it pops up:
To God be the Glory, great things He hath done;
So loved He the world that He gave us His Son.
Who yielded His life, an atonement for sin,
And opened the lifegates that all may go in.

(chorus)
Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
Let the earth hear His voice.
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord,
Let the people rejoice…

Considering that I haven’t darkened the door of a church in decades except for weddings, funerals, and visits to my parents (some overlap there), that is pretty phenomenal! Which tells you that I must have sung it hundreds of times back when. Here is a lovely rendition of it by a quartet, accompanied by only violin, cello, and piano. It starts with the history of the song, but you can pick the music up at 1:40.

Whenever I have an earworm, The Professor attempts to dislodge it by singing ABBA’s Waterloo to me. It never works. Good try though.

I wish I had control over the earworms. Music I might select if I did:

Dvořák’s New World Symphony
This 3-minute version by the 1960’s all-white, all-male Berlin Philharmonic captures the part that does go through my head the few times that I’m privileged to land on it. It is so energetic that you will not even NEED coffee if you listen to it upon awakening! For a beautiful, more colorful, more modern, complete version (50 minutes), check out the Frankfurt Symphony Orchestra‘s.

Melissa Etheridge, I’m the Only One
Ignore the captions – oddly, they are from another hit of hers, Come to My Window. I might put it on the desired earworm list, too.

Karen Carpenter’s version of Desperado

Barry Manilow, pre-out, pre-bizarre plastic surgery, Weekend in New England

The Eagles, Hotel California
Seems like this one could persevere for weeks!! They also did Desperado, but the Carpenters version is so wrenchingly heartbreaking.

Dolly Parton’s iconic Jolene.
Perfect earworm candidate. When she sang it on The Porter Wagoner Show over 50 years ago, who knew it would still be making the rounds now! As a testament to its staying power, listen to her goddaughter, Miley Cyrus, sing it.

As a note, I draw the line at Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven, unless perhaps this Kennedy Center Honors version sung by Ann and Nancy Wilson from Heart, accompanied on drums by John Bonham’s son Jason. Also, note cameo by Stephen Colbert!

And earworms aside, here are two more of my favorite Kennedy Center Honors performances:
Adam Lambert singing a lovely, poignant, slowed-down version of Believe to Cher, and

MY FAVORITE OF ALL TIME, the incomparable Aretha Franklin, in a floor-length mink coat with train, singing A Natural Woman to Carole King. She becomes so incredibly, thrillingly into her performance that she doffs that mink coat right onto the floor and brings the crowd to their feet! Including the Obamas, who are rocking out in their box. If you listen to nothing else from this post, you can make your day with just this one. She was 73 at the time, and what a set of pipes!!!

It’s morning and I’m not even done with my tea (not being an a.m. coffee drinker). That’s a lot of music! One of these might crowd out Eva María. We’ll see what pops up next. I’ll keep you posted!

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