Susan and I Need a New TV Show – Give Us Your Recommendations

by James Wallace Harris, 12/30/22

About six weeks ago Susan and I developed a new nightly routine. At ten o’clock she would feed the cats, and then we’d sit down to watch an episode of Downton Abbey with a piece of cake. This has turned out to be an extremely delightful routine and we want to keep it up. However, we’re about to run out of Downton Abbey and need a new show.

When we first got married we always watched TV together, but in recent years, our tastes have diverged greatly and we have a hard time finding shows we like watching together. I’m no longer interested in half-hour comedies which Susan loves. And Susan hates shows like Breaking Bad and Stranger Things. However, we both liked The Sopranos. And that might be a possibility, although Susan might not like it anymore.

It’s strange how our tastes have changed over the last four and a half decades. She used to sit and watch Star Trek with me, and I’d watch The Gilmore Girls with her, but those days of watching something we didn’t like just to be sociable are over. We need something we’ll both love.

So, if there is a series you liked as much as Downton Abbey please let us know. We both liked Downton Abbey in the past, so it was an easy pick. If you’re a couple, recommendations you both like might be more valid.

We are currently considering The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which we’ve both watched and liked, and Call of the Midwife which Susan has seen some. We want an hour show that has continuity. Downton Abbey was really a soap opera, and that might be a key to why we looked forward to ten o’clock every night (and well, the cake.)

It helps if the show is streaming somewhere, but I’m not against buying a DVD set.

I just remembered a show we both loved – Northern Exposure. So that’s three possibilities. But if we’re to keep this routine up we’ll need a whole lot of shows.

JWH

2022: Year in Reading

by James Wallace Harris, 12/30/22

It’s always amusing to look back over the books I read during the year to see how many I’ve forgotten. For some reason, I remembered them all this year. Oh, I couldn’t have made a list from memory, but when I look at Goodreads database every book came back to me. That’s unusual. It could be I’m getting better at picking memorable books to read. I tried to review many of them, so that might be a factor too. I read eight anthologies for a Facebook group devoted to reading a science fiction short story daily. And six books were read for a nonfiction book club. Also, I got interested in four authors this year: Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, Elizabeth Strout, and Anthony Powell. Finally, this was my year for reading history, especially about the ancient world.

2022 was the year of reading Elizabeth Strout. I read seven of her nine novels. I binged on them, reading those novels in about seven weeks. But when I look at my list, I see I read Bewilderment by Richard Powers at the beginning of the year. If I think on it for a while, my memories suggest I might have liked it better than Lucy by the Sea, my favorite Strout book, and the novel I currently think of as the best I read in 2022. Memory is tricky and comparing books is so hard.

On the other hand, An Immense World by Ed Yong feels like my favorite nonfiction book right now, but when I dig through old thoughts, I have to wonder if I didn’t like Where the Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon better? It wasn’t The Soul of a New Machine or Hackers, but it did press my love of computer history button long and hard.

Whether I’m reading a novel or a nonfiction book, the best ones often feel like the most amazing book I’ve ever read — while I’m reading them. So, instead of picking the best books of the year, I’m going to bold any book below that I highly recommend. I really enjoyed all the history books I read, but I doubt many people would, so I’m hesitant to recommend them.

Here are the books I read in 2022. Links are to my reviews.

  1. The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
  2. Bewilderment by Richard Powers
  3. The Great SF Stories 25 (1963) edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg
  4. The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony
  5. We Can Build You by Philip K. Dick
  6. Dr. Bloodmoney or How We Got Along After the Bomb by Philip K. Dick
  7. The Other Side of Philip K. Dick by Maer Wilson
  8. Philip K. Dick: Remembering Firebrght by Tessa B. Dick
  9. Humankind: A Hopeful History by Rutger Breman
  10. The Big Book of Science Fiction edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer
  11. Star Science Fiction Stories No. 1 edited by Frederik Pohl
  12. Hugo & Nebula Award Winning Stories from Asimov’s Science Fiction edited by Sheila Williams
  13. The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity by David Graeber
  14. Breakfast with Seneca: A Stoic Guide to the Art of Living by David Fideler
  15. Over My Shoulder: Reflections on a Science Fiction Era by Lloyd Arther Eshbach
  16. The Writing of the Gods: The Race to Decode the Rosetta Stone by Edward Dolnick
  17. Forgotten Peoples of the Ancient World by Philip Matyszak
  18. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon
  19. No Man on Earth by Walter F. Moudy
  20. The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Six edited by Neil Clarke
  21. Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
  22. The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome by Susan Wise Bauer
  23. The Arbor House Treasury of Modern Science Fiction edited by Robert Silverberg
  24. In the Funhouse: 17 SF Stories about SF edited by Mike Resnick
  25. Galaxies by Barry Malzberg
  26. Time’s Last Gift by Philip Jose Farmer
  27. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
  28. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade by Susan Wise Bauer
  29. Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller by Alec Nevala-Lee
  30. John Brunner by Jed Smith
  31. Red Planet by Robert A. Heinlein
  32. Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson
  33. Methuselah’s Children by Robert A. Heinlein
  34. Sixth Column by Robert A. Heinlein
  35. The Plot Against America by Philip Roth
  36. For Us, the Living: A Comedy of Customs by Robert A. Heinlein
  37. Revolt in 2100 by Robert A. Heinlein
  38. The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham
  39. A Question of Upbringing by Anthony Powell
  40. A Buyer’s Market by Anthony Powell
  41. The Acceptance World by Anthony Powell
  42. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
  43. Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
  44. My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
  45. Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
  46. The History of the Renaissance World: From the Rediscovery of Aristotle to the Conquest of Constantinople by Susan Wise Bauer
  47. At Lady Molly’s by Anthony Powell
  48. The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler
  49. Index: A History of the by Dennis Duncan
  50. Abide With Me by Elizabeth Strout
  51. Oh, William! by Elizabeth Strout
  52. The Good New Stuff: Adventure SF in the Grand Tradition edited by Gardner Dozois
  53. The World Turned Upside Down edited by David Drake, Eric Flint, and Jim Baen
  54. Lucy by the Sea by Elizabeth Strout
  55. An Immense World by Ed Yong

For many years I’ve ended my yearly summary of reading with my reading ambitions for the following year. I’m not going to do that this year. My reading tastes seem to be in flux. I like trying to read one book a week, or 52 books a year, but I’m not sure is that’s a useful goal anymore. What I love is finding great books to read. I think I’ll worry less about genre or subject, or how many, and focus on making every read count. It felt really wonderful to discover Elizabeth Strout this year. And to be honest, I am finding reading science fiction, by favorite genre, becoming less rewarding. I might just be burned out on the genre for a while.

I’m also excited about the Anthony Powell books from his A Dance to the Music of Time series of twelve novels. I’m on the fifth book and so far they show more promise than they deliver. I’m hoping if I read all twelve, and think about their total impact, my impression might change.

I’ve been studying the Best-Books-of-2022 lists and there are many I want to read. So, I’ll just call them my reading goal for the year.

JWH

Historical Bible Study Counteracts Irrational Faith Better Than Books by Atheists

by James Wallace Harris, 12/22/22

Most Christians acquire their faith in childhood. A growing proportion of Christians drop most of their early beliefs as they get older and better educated. But a significant proportion of Christians cling to childhood beliefs their entire life. Faith in the irrational can be extremely strong, no matter what evidence to the contrary is given.

Why do some people hold onto their cherished childhood beliefs with such tenacity? We know that a baby taken from a Christian culture and raised in a Muslim culture will become Islamic rather than Christian. Beliefs children are exposed to in their early years, imprint on them stronger than beliefs acquired later in life. It is very hard to deprogram early beliefs, even silly and irrational beliefs. Why is that?

One theory is cognitive dissonance. That theory studies the psychological stress caused by people experiencing conflicting information, usually caused by having old beliefs exposed to new and contradictory information.

For some people, accepting new information can undermine their psychological stability so it becomes imperative to go to any extreme to preserve the beliefs that define their sense of reality. Decades ago, a number of books became popular promoting atheism, with some becoming bestsellers. They may have had an impact because the percentage of people attending church has been declining faster in the last decade. On the other hand, many Christians left the mainstream churches and joined evangelical churches which advocated even more extreme Christian beliefs. In contrast, other believers just doubled down on their faith.

Many from that demographics became anti-science in several ways and politically skeptical. They deny climate change, vaccines, the medical profession, scientists, and even democracy. I’ve wondered if it was to maintain their Christian faith. Their cognitive dissonance is so great they are being forced into extreme views about how reality works. To some family and friends, these people are embracing disturbing irrational beliefs. This is further polarizing our society. If we are to solve our civilization’s problems we’ll need to heal this cognitive schism. To fix our relationships with each other and the Earth we must agree on what is real.

This divide will be the defining crisis for Christianity in the 21st century. If Christianity wants to regain its validity, its message must be universal. Christianity should have some core values that all denominations embrace, and even non-Christians will admire. Christianity needs to coexist with science, philosophy, history, and all other areas of knowledge. It can’t keep breaking up into smaller and smaller denominations and sects that claim they each own the truth, especially when those truths are so crazy sounding to the average person.

I’ve been discovering a different approach to Christianity in the last decade, which has been an emerging academic discipline for a couple of centuries. That is the historical study of Christianity and its texts. People who embrace both the sacred and the secular are pursuing these studies because it’s the most fascinating cold case in history. Who was Jesus, what did he really believe, and how did Christianity develop. The major focus is on the first century CE. What happened then and how do we know it.

And one of the primary methods for analyzing this period is the study of the New Testament. Most Christians, even the ones who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible seldom study the New Testament with such scrutiny. This kind of Bible study used to only exist in seminary schools – now it’s becoming a popular self-study. However, not all scholars pursuing this history are doing it with the same level of discipline. Many true believers have become Biblical archeologists to prove the validity of their faith even when it conflicts with secular truths. But what’s interesting is Bible study has become a powerful force for eroding faith in the irrational. There are several former evangelicals who are now university scholars that don’t believe what they once believed. And we’re discovering that the Bible does match up with history in many ways, but often not in the ways the faithful want.

Whoever the historical figure we call Jesus was and what he said is hidden by two thousand years of revisions and creations. Jesus, and that wasn’t his real name, is portrayed differently by the Apostle Paul, and the writers of the four gospels. The human being we call Jesus probably didn’t consider himself divine or claim to perform miracles. Everything we think we know about Jesus was invented by ordinary people decades after he died. They gave him an origin story and superpowers to compete with other figures of their times. Did you know that Augustus, the Roman Emperor, was also called a son of God? The followers of Jesus had to top that. And they kept topping every other competing belief system at the time. Their best recruiting promotion was to promise ordinary people everlasting life. No other religion promised that at the time.

Are there any clues to what the historical Jesus said and did? Maybe. One intriguing approach is the Jesus Seminar.

Many of the people who are doing historical analysis of Jesus and Christianity have examined a tremendous amount of information. Getting where they are coming from requires reading countless books. And it requires learning the disciplined approaches of professional historians. Yesterday, I discovered a video on YouTube that covers some of this territory in a very concise matter. It’s a good introduction to what I’m talking about, although some of the faithful might not like their light, even flippant approach.

After that, I recommend reading the books of Bart Ehrman or watching his YouTube channel. I find his books to be a more efficient method to take in information than watching hours of his YouTube interviews. In 2016 I wrote a review of some of his books for Book Riot. Back in 2014, I reviewed five of his books for this blog.

Trying to decipher who Jesus was is an enticing historical mystery to solve, and I think from the YouTube videos I’ve been seeing, it’s becoming very popular. I’m guessing that it will reshape Christianity. I’d like to think the teachings of the historical Jesus had certain unique philosophical insights but it’s almost impossible to know them until we can distinguish what he might have said from the fiction created about him during the first and second centuries.

JWH  

Reading Elizabeth Strout

by James Wallace Harris, 12/15/22

My fiction of choice has always been science fiction, but I’ve recently had my fill of that genre and started reading contemporary and literary fiction. I got hooked on the books of Elizabeth Strout and Anthony Powell. I’ve finished Oh, William! today, my sixth Strout book in six weeks, and started my seventh, Lucy by the Sea. She only has nine novels, so I will run out soon. Hopefully, I’ll be satiated and can try somebody new, but I’m hooked on her now. (Concurrently, I’m on the fifth book of the twelve in Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series, but that’s another story for another time.)

I began my addiction to Elizabeth Stout with Olive Kitteridge, a “novel” composed of 13 short stories. I saw the HBO miniseries based on the book years ago, but when I tried to watch the show again after finishing the book I realize it wasn’t the same experience. My image of Olive is not Frances McDormand’s version even though I liked her version very much.

I also read the sequel Olive, Again which adds another 13 stories to the Olive Kitteridge saga. We meet Olive in her sixties in the first book, and we last see her in her eighties in the second book. I’ve seldom read books about old people, but now that I’ve become old myself they have become very appealing.

Of the Strout books, I think I’m the most partial to the Olive stories, but I also love the Lucy Barton books too. There are four in that series, My Name is Lucy Barton, Anything is Possible, Oh, William! and Lucy by the Sea.

I feel both series are kind of experimental. Olive’s story is told in short stories, where some stories only have cameo appearances by Olive. Lucy narrates her story in the first, third, and fourth books, but in the second novel, we hear about Lucy from other people. I found that perspective fascinating after the first book. I listen to the books on audio, and in the books where Lucy narrates, they each feel like one long monologue. The only standalone Strout story I’ve read is Abide With Me, which has a best-seller-type third-person structure.

What’s striking about both series is the sparse, clean prose that feels like a hyperrealistic painting. I believe that’s why I like these books so much after all the science fiction I’ve been gorging on. They are hard, concrete, and mundane which contrasts sharply with the otherworldy fantasy of science fiction.

I got hooked on Strout because of my friend Linda. After I read Olive Kitteridge I started mentioning Strout to my friends and I learned that Anne (Old Anne) had already gotten hooked too. She was reading Strout in publication order and insisted that I should start over and do the same. I didn’t agree. When I mentioned to Annie (New Ann) that we were reading Strout, she wanted to read her too.

Along the way, Linda told me that she heard a Kelly Corrigan interview with Nick Hornby where she asked him what was the last book he was most impressed with, and Hornby had said Oh, William! (For now, I agree too.)

You can search online for the recommended reading order for reading Elizabeth Strout and find opposing opinions. I don’t know if it matters, even within the Olive and Lucy series. For example, if you only read Oh, William! it would work fine as a standalone novel. But I was happy that I read them in series order. Starting Stout with her first book is fine, but I feel her later books are the best.

One reason why I don’t think reading order is important is they all have the same theme. Stout likes to explore how we really don’t know each other, especially our parents, siblings, children, and spouses. And we also don’t know ourselves either. Her books inspire me to pay more attention to the folks in my life and myself. Don’t worry, they aren’t heavy. Strout succeeds with lightness.

I’ve been listening to the Elizabeth Strout books, but I liked them so much that I’ve been buying hardback copies to study. I even ordered a copy of Best American Short Stories 2013 where Strout was the guest editor. I want to see what kind of fiction she admired.

Are any of y’all fans of Elizabeth Strout?

JWH

In Control, Losing Control, Out of Control

James Wallace Harris, 12/10/22

[Don’t worry, everything is fine. The essay below might sound like whining, but I write to think things through. I’m aiming to sound comic but I’m afraid it might sound like bellyaching. But putting thoughts into words is very therapeutic for me.]

I’ve never thought of myself as an anxious person. Alfred E. Neuman was my self-help hero growing up. I had anxieties but I never thought much about being anxious — that is until I got old. Now that I’m retired and obviously aging I realize that things beyond my control might be creating new feelings to experience, and one of those new feelings might be anxiety over anxiety. Right now, that sensation is minor but I can see where it could become major.

This got me thinking about the nature of anxiety. If you’re a two-year-old and you can’t get the toy you want, throwing a tantrum is a way to communicate your anxiety. If you’re a teenager and feel like you don’t fit in socially anxiety might reveal itself in countless ways, such as a fear of where to sit in the cafeteria at lunchtime. As an adult and you feel overwhelmed at work, anxiety might manifest as a good old-fashion coronary.

I’m not sure what I’m feeling. It might be the existential angst of aging, the looming dread of civilization’s collapse, or the plain mundane fear of dying. Or maybe I just don’t have enough to do. However, I’m starting to think what I’m feeling is wimpy anxiousness over dealing with house repairs and visits to doctors. Components in my body and home keep wearing out.

I’ve always been pretty laid back, a go-with-the-flow kind of guy. I think that was because we moved around a whole lot when I was a kid, and so I just got used to things always changing and being up in the air. I never lived in any house longer than eighteen months until I was in my forties. I just solved problems as they showed up.

I also have the kind of personality where I avoid conflict and stress. I got a job in 1977 that I stuck with until 2013. And I got married in 1978 and have been married ever since. I don’t like rocking the boat. I think all of that has led to a low-anxiety life, which I was lucky to find and grateful to have.

But now I’m 71, and I realize I’ve been living in the same house for fifteen years. That has made me very comfortable and I worry more and more about losing it. And the body I’ve depended on for 71 years is becoming less dependable, and that’s freaky too.

Something is changing. Besides my body and house needing more frequent repairs, Susan is getting some health problems too. Susan and I both hope we can die in this house. I realize that I’m trying to control three big things. My health, Susan’s health, and the house.

Now, this anxiety is nothing compared to a family that’s lost their home in Hurricane Ian, or being the president and worrying over the national economy. But it is a feeling that I’m having to deal with, and I’m trying to figure out how to deal with it, and what exactly causes it.

In 2022 I had one operation, two ER visits, four ultrasounds, three CT scans, one MRI, and countless other medical tests. My doctor is talking about three additional operations I might need. Also in 2022 I had to replace the outside AC unit, replace the hot water heater after it flooded my computer room, had to have dead limbs removed in February after a falling limb speared a hole in the roof last December, and now I’m having to spend another three thousand having the trees cleared of diseased branches again after a giant limb fell across the back on the house.

I’m still a fairly la-de-da kind of guy, but I realize this slight background radiation of unease is not going away. I realize it’s because I’m trying to control things that are hard to control. I worry about Susan, but neither I nor her doctor can nag her into exercising — so I have no control over her. And there’s only so much control I have over my body even though I am willing to diet and exercise to help myself.

Although I can have the house repaired I realize I’m slowly losing control over our home (as I hear another small branch hit the roof). I can no longer do most of the repairs myself. I gave away my big ladder because I don’t think I should be getting on the roof anymore. Before I would have just gotten on the roof, sawed the big limb into pieces, and tossed them down to the ground. Now I have to wait for the tree people to clear it off. However, that turned out to be a blessing in disguise. The tree guy spotted numerous diseased branches that need to be cut out, and some of them are giant and could cause significant damage to the house. I now have falling tree limb anxiety, to add to my flooding floors anxiety.

In a fantasy of gaining control, I considered having all the trees near the house cut down, and having an addition put on the back of the house so I could move the water heater and HVAC out of the attic so there would be no water lines above us. And since we have a few days of power outages every year, I’ve also considered getting a standby natural gas generator. However, all those considerations might be overkill.

In 2023 I’ll probably have more maintenance done on my body, and I’ll replace an ancient dishwasher, and a refrigerator that leaks, and have some other plumbing problems fixed. And there will be other unforeseen things to fix too. I’m amused that my body and my house both seem to be breaking down equally as often.

I sometimes contemplate moving to a retirement complex. A friend is investigating assistant-living apartments for their parent and the assistant-living facility they described sounded super-attractive. I would no longer have to worry about controlling a house, just my body. But I think we’re too young yet for such a facility.

Still, I realize that between now and oblivion I’ll be fighting to control my health. That’s nothing I even considered when I was young. For now, I’d say I was in control, but I can foresee losing control, and even being out of control.

All kidding aside, I’ve always felt anything I was anxious about I could fix myself. One aspect of this new feeling of anxiety is a sense that I can no longer fix my problems myself. I must hire people. I’m becoming more and more dependent on doctors and repairmen.

My sister Becky once observed that we start off life in one room with people taking care of us and end up in another single room with people taking care of us. (I think she said it more graphicly, with references to butt wiping.) Maybe I didn’t feel particularly anxious most of my life because I felt I could fix my problems, and these new anxieties I’m feeling because I’m getting more and more people to take care of my problems and I’m spending more and more time in fewer rooms.

JWH

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