Fowl Meadow, Massachusetts

At least Massachusetts is having a bit of spring!

Saturday, May 12, 2018

More Russians: Anton Chekhov's Ward No. 6 and Other Stories

Dark clouds and very cool temperatures made this a reading kind of mid-to-late afternoon. I wanted a bit of a break from my current reads, so I picked up Ward No. 6 and Other Stories by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov. My Barnes and Noble paperback edition includes stories from the years of his earliest writings, 1885 ("The Cook's Wedding") to his final years of writing, as in 1902 ("The Bishop").

(I love the cover photo of Chekhov--that's a dachshund type of dog curling up under his left arm.)

I was very interested to discover that the Penguin edition of this same title only covers Chekhov's stories published between 1892-1896. (Yes, I must get this.) I want to read all the stories from that peak period of his work.

I deliberately did not read any Chekhov biographical notes, Wikipedia articles, literary criticism, or history of any kind. I wanted to immerse myself in a few stories and let what I read speak for itself; I wanted to connect with the art as is. Of course later I will most assuredly read all of the above, but sometimes it is really a good thing to just charge into a work of art and take it on its own merits, without the pre-judgements of others. 

I remember an unforgettable art teacher telling me in my early forties, "Let the work of art speak directly to you," she kept emphasizing. "Don't let others' opinions cloud your first personal experience with the painting." Her students religiously practiced this, although after discussing our own views of the artwork, we were free to pursue the voices of critics and biographers.  An important lesson that I've never forgotten.

I read the first two stories in the collection, "The Cook's Wedding" and "The Witch (1886)" this afternoon. I was swept away by the extraordinary description of a brutal snowstorm in "The Witch." A masterful depiction--I don't think I've ever read a more detailed, more exquisitely done "word painting" of a snowstorm.

I do feel sad that Chekhov died at the age of 44. What a loss that was! To contemplate the mortality of 19th-century and early-20th century tuberculosis on young people's lives.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Loads of Books Are Calling--But Where Am I?

In this, now the second week of May, I'm amazed by the trees that are now, FINALLY, beginning, just beginning, to leaf out. Very slowly indeed. My daffodils did not send up any blossoms this year, which is par for the course. They were splendid last year, for whatever reason. Actually, they bloom every third year or so. No black flies yet, so Sasha and I are still enjoying sunning ourselves on our second-floor balcony. The wasps and other flying insects have discovered us, but they're not too threatening. After a wild, wild, crazy line of thunderstorms last Friday evening, we were without power for 4 days, yet our area,  blissfully, was not really touched by a blow-down of trees.

Books: Still reading Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman on a daily basis. Enjoying so much!!
I do wish I had more time to read, but I don't right now. Still, I dream of making more time on a daily basis. If I listened to that voice, I'd be able to begin and get on with John Le Carre's  A Small Town in Germany, and Graham Greene's novel of World War II, the highly acclaimed The End of the Affair (1951).  These are my goals.

I recently purchased Christina Stead's The Little Hotel, and would love to read it very soon!
Have you heard of or read the Australian writer Christina Stead? She spent her productive working years in England, I believe. I actually, stupidly, thought she was English, until a few weeks ago. Just set your eyes on this book cover--I love it!

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Phyllis Whitney, the Joys of Life and Fate, and Striking Hitler Parallels to Today

Oh, how I'm enjoying the challenge of reading Vasily Grossman's novel  Life and Fate, which after the first 35 pages, is not all that challenging at all. It's a thick, meaty slice of Russian life and literature, sprawling, lots of characters bundled into various settings across Russia and--in the case of prisoners--across Germany. Mostly it's the story of one extended family, which has been evacuated from Moscow and other cities to the hinterlands to the west. They are largely the professional class, although there is a family of Communist Party Members and their ilk. I'm up to p. 140 (out of 880 pages), and I'm loving it. I look forward to my early morning and late afternoon reading bouts. No, no, absolutely not reading this before bed! I need my wits about me.
The following book cover has a photo of Vasily Grossman. Sounds like a fascinating book as well.

Before bed I'm reading Spindrift by Phyllis Whitney. The lead character is a young married woman, who suffered (supposedly) a severe breakdown after discovering her father's body after a grand party in a Newport (Rhode Island) mansion, owned by her father's very wealthy colleagues. Christy's husband is hopeless, distant, and ineffectual, and her mother-in-law a tyrant, who is willfully blocking access to their only son Peter. Everyone treats the young woman as a hopeless invalid. (This is the premise--I'm not giving anything away.) Of course, from the beginning, Christy has never stopped protesting that her father's death was not a suicide. Lots of challenges for her, and great atmosphere.

In case you've made it through my post this far, ahem! Please read on, if you've the time:

In Chapter 10 "The Motherland Overwhelms the Fatherland" in Andrew Roberts's The Storm of War (2011), I was overwhelmingly struck by the following passage describing Hitler's managerial style and approach to the War on the Eastern Front with the Soviet Union.

Note: The following is an excerpt from the German Franz Halder's private and well-hidden diary. Halder was Chief of Staff for Hitler's military operations.

Halder notes that when Hitler is presented with realism from his officers and generals, he...
      "explodes in a fit of insane rage and hurls the gravest reproaches against the General Staff. This chronic tendency to underrate enemy capabilities is gradually assuming grotesque proportions and develops into a positive danger...This so-called leadership is characterized by a pathological reacting to the impressions  of the moment and a total lack of any understanding of the command machinery and its possibilities."  p. 317

There is much more to report about Hitler's psyche during the Battle of Stalingrad, sure sounds familiar, in a way that makes me feel even more uneasy than I already am, as if that's possible!


Sunday, April 29, 2018

Book Updates--The Russian Novel & American Wolf

Thank goodness my copy of Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman arrived on Saturday! A very long wait from Book Depository, but getting the UK Vintage edition was well worth the time it took. I am into it 75 pages' worth of close reading yesterday late afternoon and this afternoon. I am thoroughly enjoying, including the philosophizing, I must say. I have found Grossman's ruminations about the passages of time, to be particularly engaging. Yet because the book involves characters (part of the time) who are defending Russia during the Battle of Stalingrad, I've found it helpful to see what background or historical sources I can dig up to help me understand what is going on during  this battle. I feel a little lost without them.

Antony Beevor's Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943 (1998) is a paperback I picked up at a book sale for 50 cents--quite a neat copy, too. I also have Andrew Roberts's The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War (2011), which offers a more concise description of this pivotal battle and what was at stake. You know, all my life I have avoided books about Stalingrad, mostly because of how long and incredibly complicated a siege it was. But, I will say,even the war parts of this book are not only about Stalingrad.

And furthermore, this book is not all about WAR. It is also the story of an entire family evacuated from Moscow to Kazan, a populous city 460 miles to the east, and the family members' lives once they get there. Very interesting! Like War and Peace, this novel is not solely about war. In fact, even the parts that are set in battle areas deal primarily with soldiers' feelings and thoughts and their relationships with each other rather than military strategies.

And for the audiobook that I borrowed from the library and listened to on long drives, I must report on American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West by Nate Blakeslee (2017). This was a fascinating, heart-rending tale of the wildlife biologists championing the lives of wolves in Yellowstone National Park.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

To Tackle a Russian or Not? An Epic Novel, That Is

This evening, after two walks in a very icy, wind-driven drizzle at 26 degrees F, I feel empowered.

With Life and Fate by the Russian/Soviet author Vasily Grossman at my left elbow, and a shining votive candle at my right elbow, I am declaring that I am going to start reading this 871-page novel immediately. Maybe lots of us here in "The Northeast Blue Zone," could use a good dose of Russian fatalism right now, and, as I understand it, that's what this novel can provide.

Vasily Grossman was born in 1905 in Berdichev, in the Ukraine, which was a city with one of the largest Jewish communities in eastern Europe (flyleaf). In his younger years Grossman studied chemistry and later he became a mining engineer. Yet somehow he found time at night to write. Grossman was discovered by the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky, the founder of socialist realism, who helped promote Grossman's writing. (Gorky was born in 1868 and died in 1936, so that made him 49 years old at the time of the Russian Revolution.)

Grossman was a combat correspondent throughout all of World War II. He saw the worst of it--the German blitzkrieg of 1939-40, the Battle of Stalingrad, and the Battle of Berlin in 1945.

He finished Life and Fate in 1960, and when he submitted the manuscript for publication, it was seized by the KGB. Grossman died in 1964, never knowing that more than ten years later, a microfilm copy of his novel would be smuggled out of the Soviet Union and would be published internationally.

The only English translation of Life and Fate is by Robert Chandler,  which was completed in 1979 and published in 1980. His introductory "Translator's Notes" did make me gasp, though inwardly to be sure. I kept reminding myself that he committed the cardinal sins of translation in the late 1970s. A translator wouldn't do what he did now, but things do change from era to era.

Robert Chandler deleted what he described as overly "philosophical" and some unclear passages, amounting to a total of six pages. It was the "philosophical" deletions that got me. So Grossman meandered or waxed philosophically here and there? Just delete it?? Well, how could you? Chandler could have redacted the passages and included them in an appendix of some sort.  It doesn't seem likely that Life and Fate will get another English translation, but maybe someday. I hope so.

In any case, I'm going off to read. I have a library copy, but I'm going to buy one because I think this one will take me a while.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

New Books, April Icicles, & Snow, Snow, Snow

If you wish, do skip the winter weather talk in the first two paragraphs.

Winter is holding on tight--its talons deeply entrenched. We've had really wintry weather--temperatures down to the teens at night and daytime temps in the high 20s. Wild winds as well, causing many to lose power. (We lost power but have a wonderful generator--no complaints.)

Friday night the snow was coming down so hard that I could barely see 20 feet in front of the car, and wouldn't you know, everyone flocked into North Creek to the restaurants, storm or no storm. (Our book group went on as usual.)
This Sunday afternoon we walked, pelleted by graupel, that icy, frozen precipitation that starts in the clouds as snow and is tossed around in the atmosphere until it is deeply frozen, hard, and stark white.
I don't mind any of this. Over the years. time has shown that spring does not arrive until May. The first half of April is nasty, one way or another, and why not have it frozen with snow rather than with heavy rains and mud?

The first meeting of our European Travelers Book Group met to discuss Snow-Blind by the Icelandic author Ragnald Jonasson, a police/mystery procedural that takes place in the northernmost region of Iceland, in Siglufjordur, a town situated on a fjord that has a gigantic mountain overlooking the town. This town is close to the Arctic Circle.

I first learned of Snow-Blind from Cath who keeps the blog readwarbler. I was not disappointed. Everyone in our group enjoyed the novel, especially the atmospheric setting  and the main characters and their relationships. I'm so interested in the young Ari Thor's character, that I can't wait for the second book to appear in the U.S., which is  due to be published in October later this year. Too long to wait! It's interesting that later books in the series have already been published here, but I'd rather read them in order, to see the development of Ari's character, who is a troubled, young soul.

I've almost finished How It All Began by Penelope Lively. I heartily recommend this latest book  of hers, or perhaps her last book, most likely, published in 2011. It is a tour de force about how changes in age and the life cycle affect us all, profoundly. I have loved it. So well done.

I have so many other books that I'm dying to read, and I'm working now. I like working, but I do NOT like NOT having hours and hours to read each week. Phooey!

Books on my Wishlist:
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer  (2018)
The Prague Sonata by Bradford Morrow  (515 pp.)
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
Loads of Russian novels.  I will need to list these in another post.
So many books I'm thirsty to read!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Novelist Anita Shreve Has Died at 71

It was with a sharp pain and a gasp that I read the news this morning that Anita Shreve, author of 19 novels, died yesterday at her home in New Hampshire. Sometimes I wish I had known of an author's severe illness before the final blow strikes. Perhaps I could have sent a card or a letter to say what her books meant to me over the decades.

Evidently lots of people in the publishing world knew, because a year ago she had to cancel numerous speaking engagements due to her chemotherapy.

There's something about an artist dying at 71--still in her writing prime, as evidenced by her last novel, The Stars Are Fire, which was published in 2017.  Something truncated--unnatural. Perhaps I feel that the ability to write a novel should go first, then sometime later, the writer herself, as does often happen. I guess it's a shock, a sadness either way.

She grew up in Dedham, Massachusetts,  a town 12 miles from the town where I was raised. After college she taught high-school English in a suburban Boston town, and one year she realized with force that she must write fiction, and she left her position in April. Breaking a teaching contract mid-year was unheard of during my teaching days in Massachusetts. The drive to write was that powerful. 

Thursday, March 29, 2018

A New Discovery for Me--Penelope Lively

I'm reading Penelope Lively's How It All Began, published in 2011, and am so entranced by her writing style. This is my first time reading her. The novel delights me, in some (but not all) of the ways that Barbara Pym's book enchant me.

Lively's writing style is unique, but the subject of personal isolation is not, and she treats it in ways that do not depress but rather illuminate the intricacies of personal connection with the world and  with other people.

From what I've been able to gather, How It All Began is the most recent adult novel that Lively has published. Lively was born in 1933, I recall, and so she must be turning 85 this year. I can see why there has not been a novel since 2011.

Have you read Penelope Lively? What aspects of her fiction have been meaningful to you? Which books have you liked or disliked, and why? 

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Current Books, Including a Thrilling Gothic by John Boyne

Winter continues unabated. Tonight the temperature will drop to 1 degree F. Unheard of for mid-March. But I'm loving it! There's nothing  like heaping loads of blankets on the bed at night.

Oh, am I ever thrilling to This House is Haunted by John Boyne, author of the well-known young adult novel, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. The gothic is set in 1867, principally on an estate in Norfolk. The narrator  is a 21-year-old, well-educated young woman who impulsively abandons her home in  London the week after her father's untimely death to take the position of governess at a stately mansion. Problems arise when she arrives and discovers that there are no adults present in the household. There are only her charges Isabella, aged twelve, and her brother Eustace, aged eight. No parents, no servants, no one, except for an older man who sees to the stables and barnyard animals.

This novel also has ghostly appearances, but they are subtly treated and the book does not overlap into the paranormal genre.  I simply have been unable to put the book down. Boyne's style, his tone, his originality most of all, have made this a delightful read for this Gothic-loving reader. I will hate to see it end, and I am three-quarters through. Sigh.

I am now listening to Tina Fey's Bossypants. Parts  of it are so funny, I have been unable to wash dishes safely, or  exercise. I really need to listen to it sitting in the middle of a very large bed, so I don't fall over the side, laughing. Of course, some chapters are better than others, but still. Very funny.