Mount Mansfield, Vermont, from My Hotel Bedroom (Dec. 2017)

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.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Setting Straight a Less Than Stellar Reading Year

The snow has been falling all this month of March. It has snowed all day and last night. It's snowing now, and it will snow tonight, tomorrow, and the next day.

I don't mind this one bit. I feel as though I'm in a snow-globe cocoon. Getting a huge bulk of snow underfoot now means that Sasha and I will be able to keep our woods-loving selves free of mud for weeks to come. We will be free to traipse all over everywhere, with me in snowshoes of course and Sasha walking in my tracks. April is welcome to be as muddy as it likes, because by then the sun is high enough to dry out our dirt roads so that we have excellent road walking. I wish I had a good photo to post, but it needs to stop snowing first.

Okay--My conundrum:
I browsed through my list of books read in 2017, especially those I read in the first 3-4 months of the year and realized, with a start, that my 2018 reading has been nowhere near as satisfying as it was last year. In 2017, I enjoyed almost all of the books I read and I loved so many of them. I must blog a few posts about the stellar books of 2017, because I didn't do it at New Year's.

Things have improved with my last two books read in 2018, however.
First off has been an audiobook that has riveted me beyond realization. I wrote a bit of the premise of Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover in my last entry, when I had just started listening. When I penned that entry, I had no idea how tough a read (or listening experience) it would be.

 I must tell readers that at times Tara's story seemed unremittingly grim to me, especially when she was living in the grips of her parents' rigid fundamentalist beliefs without a way out. There are many, many incredibly frightening events that occur, BUT I did not even consider setting the book aside. It was too compelling, too well-written, and Tara's character was too strong to give up on her story.
I do heartily recommend this book because it has something to say to everyone who ever grew up in a close family. It has something to say to everyone who ever tried to live their dreams, and to live a life free from the shackles that hamstrung their parents.  But still, it is a challenging read.

I thoroughly enjoyed (and reveled in) Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. Oh, Pym certainly was a proto-feminist, but her revelations about that, as portrayed through the first-person narrator Mildred, are subtle, yet at the same time, unmistakable, and revealed with Pym's recognizably droll humor.

Mildred, a woman in her thirties in the very early 1950s, lives solely on the small income left to her by her deceased parents. She seems to have never longed for a paying job or suffer the lack of one.
She has a second-floor apartment and a small attic space in a not prosperous London neighborhood, and must share a bathroom with the occupants of the first-floor apartment, who change from time to time.  Mildred is a hard-working member of her "High Anglican" church community, and she also volunteers for a charity that helps "elderly gentlewomen," who have fallen on hard times.

In this novel, Mildred keeps being swept up in her neighbors' and fellow churchgoers' difficult affairs of the heart. She, too, has a number of not entirely satisfactory relationships with single men but never seems to stop hoping. Until things change. And that's what makes this book worth the reading.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Books I'm Thirsting to Read

Heavy,  wet snow tomorrow after a spring-like week or more--perhaps my wishes have been answered.

I've been longing to read a book by Barbara Pym for weeks now. Finally the Penguin paperback of  Excellent Women (1952) has arrived, and I'm a quarter of the way through.   The only other book I've read of Pym's is Quartet in Autumn, which delighted me last year. And I can't wait to share my thoughts about this book very soon--most particularly the characters.

Late this afternoon, I pulled out my knitting and started listening to the recently published Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover. It's the story of a girl and later, a young woman, who was raised in a survivalist culture in southern Idaho, and who managed to break free of her family, who had forbidden her and her siblings any education.

For those new to the topic of "American survivalists," many members of this small minority practice extreme religious fundamentalism and shun all the trappings of modern society. Many hide from public institutions, particularly those governed by the "Feds," but also from state and local governments. Like Tara Westover's father, many believe that the U.S. government is out to destroy them. They harbor extensive arsenals of weaponry, as Tara's father did, expecting slaughter from the federal government.
But Tara Westover makes it clear from the beginning that this book not about extremists--it's really about her journey and her education and her  "becoming" in the wider world.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

We're Melting: My Current Book Pile

Wednesday was a dreadful day for winter lovers. The thermometer rose to 64 degrees in my high-elevation northern wilderness region. Although I enjoyed sunning myself and reading on our balcony, all outdoor exercise--traipses into the woods or hikes on the road--were impossible. The road was squelching, deep-boot-covering mud. The trails were deeply water-logged.
It's cooled down a bit now, but nowhere near enough to be normal for February. Must we now face the end of winter sports for the season? I hope not! I'm praying for March cold and oodles of snowstorms. It's okay--I know I'm in total denial of climate change.

Books are a primary means of comfort at such times. I had to ditch Fire and Fury, my audio--knitting combo, by Michael Wolff. Halfway through was more than enough. I may pick it up later, but for now the daily New York Times is offering more scandalous fodder than Wolff's book.

I'm finishing Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann, for the Now Read This Book Club, which will be featured on the PBS NewsHour on Wed. evening, Feb. 28th. I will be ready. A very worthwhile read. Please see previous posts for more about this book and a link to the Book Club.

Once more, just this week, I returned to Conn Iggulden's Stormbird, which I was reading in December in Vermont while it snowed endlessly. It's the first novel in his War of the Roses Series (four books). The emphasis is on wartime action and adventure, but I found enough to like in it to continue reading this 430-page book. I learned a lot about how battles were fought in the fifteenth century, and I will say that the details were interesting, though I would not want to read book after book about the details of additional battles in the prolonged struggle for dominance in England. Still, it was interesting to learn how desperately the French feared the English archers who faced them in the front lines. Good writing.

I am loving a wonderful book  about a spunky Bassett Hound, who came to stay at the home of the writer Hal Borland and his wife Barbara in northwestern Connecticut. Penny: The Story of a Free-Soul Basset Hound was published in 1972, but to me this book reflects the much simpler times of rural America in the 1950s.

Hal Borland was a naturalist, outdoorsman, and writer for the New York Times and an author of books on these topics. He was born in 1900 and died in 1978. His most popular book by far was The Dog Who Came to Stay, a story about a dog previous to Penny, who adopted the Borlands and became their beloved companion.  Penny the Bassett is quite another number--much more high-spirited, recalcitrant, and fiendishly devilish. But, all the same, I find it very relaxing and amusing to read about their struggles with this staunchly independent dog. Strangely, no human in this book, and there are many, has any clue or inkling how to train a dog, not even a little bit, which is what makes it so hilarious.  Oh, the poor, poor humans to be so tyrannized by a Bassett.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

New English Crime Novel by Barbara Cleverly

My latest mystery is Diana's Altar, by Barbara Cleverly, a veteran English crime novelist. This novel is #13 in her Joe Sandilands crime series. A number of the early titles in the series take place in colonial India. Then Joe, a WWI veteran, swings back to England to work as a top investigator at Scotland Yard.  This one is Cleverly's latest in the series and was published in 2015.  It's set in Cambridge, England, during the early 1930s, just as many university students and a number dons are beginning to embrace communist ideals, causing MI5's and Scotland Yard's backs to raise hackles. 

Aside from that developing phenomenon, Dr. Adelaide Hartest, a low-status (though a daughter from a prestigious family), token woman in an all-male, prestigious medical practice, begins the novel by attending to two deaths on the same night, on All Hallows' Eve. One appears to be a suspicious suicide, a death by dagger, in a church known for its very odd Anglican vicar. The other is a death that Hartest clearly detects was a poisoning by arsenic in a country house owned by a money-purchased titled sir of ostentatious wealth.

Joe is very smart, funny, well-educated, and upper-class despite his choice of profession with MI5. He has tried and tried to betroth himself to Adelaide, who is resisting, according to her determination to retain her professional life. He supposes that she believes that marriage and professional commitment don't coexist for women at this time.

I was tipped off to this book by the Washington Post and NPR book critic, Maureen Corrigan, who gave this title a stellar review. I am enjoying it, I'm a third of the way through and longing for more, but I am despairing because I have only 5 days left with it before Overdrive claims the ebook back, without my consent. Overdrive is a tyrant that way.

And have you ever heard of Barbara Cleverly? This is the first I've learned of her. She was born in 1940 and is now 77. I'm very interested in trying one of the early, set-in-India, Joe Sandlilands books.