Fowl Meadow, Massachusetts

At least Massachusetts is having a bit of spring!

Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Cool, Dark, Rainy Saturday with Books and Candles

With all of our trees in full leaf, a rainy day is ever so dark indoors. Hence, my trip to North Creek to buy my favorite "Northern Light" tapered candles, in dark reds and spruce green, to keep me comforted while reading all the afternoon long, very deeply. Saturday was a rest day after a busy week.

I started the day journal writing, and after the trip to buy candles, I immersed myself in reading one of May Sarton's published journals that I have never read, Recovering: A Journal, which was written when she was 66 and 67 years old, in 1978-79,  a time of crisis and nearly insurmountable challenges in her life. May Sarton was a European-born American, a distinguished and award-winning poet, novelist, memoirist,  academic, and feminist, who lived from 1912-1995.

Her most well-known work is Journal of a Solitude, written in her late 40s,  which was embraced by American women of all ages during and after the second wave of feminism in the U.S. in the late 1970s, and the 1980s, and 1990s. If you have not read it, it remains her most beloved work and is still her most popular and most widely read book today.

I read it in the early 1980s and consider it one of the best books I've ever read. I read it when I was not yet married and saw no potential of ever being married. I believe I gravitated to it because she described her challenges as a writer, she wrote about the solace of nature, gardens, and animals (she was one hell of a gardener, indoors and out), and she contemplated what it is to be a fallible human being, in life and in love and in failure. In her journals, she speaks to me, so openly and honestly, that I am drawn close to her experience.

And so it is, exactly the same, with Recovering: A Journal. I couldn't put it down.

The rest of the afternoon I devoted to Sharon Kay Penman's Time and Chance, about Henry II and Thomas Becket. I'm halfway through this chunky chunkster and it looks as though perhaps Thomas is on his way out after trying to hold on to his role as Archbishop of Canterbury. An atmospheric read and one that does not disappoint in this rendering of Henry II's reign.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Henry II and Eleanor and a Manhattan Terrace Garden 20 Floors Up!

Two summers ago (2016) I read Sharon Kay Penman's first novel in her Plantagenet Series--When Christ and the Saints Slept.  I remember it being an enormous chunkster (well over 550 pages) but can't remember its exact length. I thoroughly enjoyed it, despite it being a dense read, with loads of characters and tumultuous events, admirably done and engrossing, and I swore I'd read the second novel in the series the next summer.

Although 2017 did not work out, I am now engrossed in Penman's  Time and Chance, which begins with the relatively early part of Henry II's reign and the early years of his marriage to Eleanor. It's a large hardcover, with 512 pages, so I'll be going at it awhile. It will cover the entirety of Henry II's reign, because the third novel in the series covers the exploits of Henry's sons in full detail.

I love medieval English history, and it's fun when it's delivered as an historical novel. Sharon Kay Penman has written another series of books of early royal English history, but frankly I have no idea what the other series are about. I think I'd like to read all her books, BUT just one per year. Some are over 600 pages, and I don't think I read books fast enough to conquer more than one annually.

In addition I am adoring Susan Brownmiller's My City High-Rise Garden, which was published in 2017, when Brownmiller was 80 years of age. Here's a wonderful interview with her about the book. (I know, she does not look that old. It's probably the garden fitness training.) It's about her 35-year love affair with gardening on a terrace 20 flights up in a Manhattan apartment building. Such brutal weather conditions (Think the winds! And think about the fact that New York City is the windiest city, not Chicago!), the soil perpetually dry because of the winds, the loading and unloading of huge bags of soil and manure at such a site, the search for super-hardy stems and vines, etc. 

You will enjoy this book if you love to read about other people's gardening challenges, mishaps, disasters (oh--she has some beauts and yet she overcomes), and adventures. Believe me, you do not have to be a city dweller to appreciate and love this slim book. Brownmiller experimented with birch trees  and incredibly productive dwarf peach trees dripping with ripe fruit in August, perennials of all stripes, annuals, and loads of bushes of all sorts, not to mention boston ivy and climbing roses up the brick-face of the building. Fascinating  reading. Oh! And climbing clematis--how did she do it? 
For those who don't know Brownmiller, she was a prime leader of the second-wave feminist movement in the US in the 1970s and 1980s. She has written lots of books about this topic, BUT sorry, you will find no feminism in this gardening book. Oops! Well, maybe a wee bit!

Saturday, June 9, 2018

How I Enjoyed Muriel Spark and Penelope Fitzgerald This Week

This will need to be a brief post. I'm still not back to normal, but books provide consolation. I'm in the middle of reading the classic dog novel Big Red by Jim Kjellgaard. How interesting to discover that he was born in Albany, New York, the capital of New York State, and a city that we visit two hours' south for medical specialists. Unfortunately, his death was yet another suicide, at the age of 49. He wrote a great deal during his life and loved the western U.S., but at the end of his life he was in a great deal of physical pain.

Today I spent the entire day in bed!!! I could see early summer beauty from my bedroom all day, our gigantic sugar maples and oaks in full leaf,  but I was so exhausted from the past week, that I chose, deliberately, to spend the day with Penelope Fitzgerald's superb novel The Bookshop, first published in the UK in 1978. Just 123 pages, I do heartily recommend this novel, which makes lots of statements about the world as it is so tragically, so sadly. Yet this is also such a totally satisfying work about individual relationships in small towns and it is about individual loneliness. This town is in East Anglia, in Sussex, by the sea.  So worthwhile.  I know lots of you have probably read it.  Are there other Penelope Fitzgerald novels I should read??

I spent last Sunday reading Muriel Spark's Girls  of Slender Means. This, too, I enjoyed, in bewilderment and enchantment. Muriel Spark has much less sympathy or empathy for her characters than Fitzgerald or Barbara Pym or others writing at this time,  but, in this novel, she captures the lives of single women in London in 1945, immediately post-war, brilliantly. I was entranced by the exquisite details of 1945 rationing and the attempts women took to circumvent it. This is my second novel by Spark--I would like to read more of her, but her appalling distance from her characters does make me shudder at times.


Friday, May 25, 2018

Farewell, Darling Sasha! Best Friend and Book Pal

 July 2, 2008--May 22, 2018   Rest in peace, our beloved friend and noble wanderer! We will love you forever, our beautiful golden girl.

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.