In the High Peaks

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Alix Kates Shulman

Reading has been my preoccupation during the month of June, and especially so since Sasha, our new golden retriever, has come to live with us. She loves to walk and...she LOVES to come home. She's a "Back to the Barn" horse version of a dog who loves nothing better than to sit by my side while I read.

I have become so relaxed, it's ridiculous. I'm now reading the last 50 pages of Peeling the Onion by Gunter Grass, and this morning I began Drinking the Rain: A Memoir by Alix Kates Shulman, the author of the highly acclaimed American feminist classic, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. Still read, still adored.

Drinking the Rain is about Shulman's solitary connection with a Maine island retreat, Long Island in Casco Bay, a 50-minute ferry ride from Portland, the largest city in Maine. My Ken grew up in South Portland and spent his summers at his aunt's cottage, a stone's throw from Long Island, on Peaks Island. How he loved the summers there, sailing, swimming, bicycling, clamming, and eating lobsters, shrimp, and all kinds of seafood.

So it is that I came to Peaks as a youngish bride (okay, I was 31), though it took me years to learn the island's charms. The first two years I visited, the sun never shone. All I ever heard was the mournful cries of the foghorns. When eventually the sun appeared in my third year, I fell in love with Peaks. We spent our summer vacations at his aunt's cottage from 1986-1998. We would have continued, but I developed horrendous, incapicating allergies while staying at the cottage in 1997 and 1998, so the year after that, we visited the Adirondack Mountains and found a lasting home that suited us both.

I never visited Long Island, Maine, though I spent many a time viewing it through binoculars from the rocky shores of Peaks, watching the people and cars traveling back and forth. A fascinating pastime, watching the Long Islanders.

So it is with fascination that I'm reading Drinking the Rain and Shulman's whole-hearted embrace of solitude--writing and eating "off the land." This 5-month sojourn was a huge departure for Shulman, a Manhattanite born and bred, but therein lies the story. I happen to love solitude, so I enjoy reading about others' discoveries and descriptions of their solitary adventures.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

New Book Blogs of Substance

Without Wimbledon to consume my literary preoccupations today, I visited several book blogs that demanded to be added to my "Blogs of Substance" list. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I am.

The first, A Book Every Six Days, is kept by a writer who has a number of other enchanting blogs. His book blog is classically oriented and replete with information about each book he finds and reviews. All of his other blogs, and he has quite a few, are a pure delight. Thank you to the blogger who calls himself Scriptor Senex!!

The other book blog, Winstonsdad's Blog, is included because of its devotion to worldwide translated fiction. Stu seems to have his finger on the pulse of European and Asian fiction, and for that I'm grateful. By the way, Winston is his dog. I'm still trying to find out what kind of dog Winston is. I imagine Winston loves to read as much as his dad.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

I Am Introduced to Lord Peter Wimsey

Wimbledon Saturday seriously docked my reading time today, as it has all week. I think I'm glad there's no Wimbledon play tomorrow, so I have more time to devote to reading. At this point in my long summer vacation, reading has become a passion so intense that very little can compete with it.

When I turned the last page of P.D. James's Talking Detective Fiction this morning, I immediately downloaded Whose Body? by Dorothy Sayers and am now becoming acquainted with Lord Peter Wimsey. Reading classics of the so-called "Golden Age" of detective fiction, English classics of the 1930s, is certainly a huge departure for me, but a very amusing one. I really wanted to read Sayers's Gaudy Night first, but it's not available through inter-library loan or via e-reader download. I'd have to buy a copy somehow, which I may do, depending on how Whose Body? evolves.

So, did I tell you? Ken has observed how insanely bereft I've been over the loss of my NookColor, (which I lost, stupidly, on the morning we went to pick up our new Golden Retriever), that he ordered a replacement for my birthday! I was so surprised. We are so casual about our birthdays--more often than not we don't give gifts unless there's something pressing that one of us needs or wants. (This is because we go too far overboard at Christmas.) So this morning I was able to obtain Whose Body? for 99 cents. A great deal!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Gunter Grass Memoir--Peeling the Onion

It's been raining and extremely humid since Tuesday. The mosquitoes are impossible to avoid when outdoors, so Sasha and I "get exercise," but I can't say that either one of us enjoys it. Thank goodness for books and Wimbledon on TV.

For my German Postwar Literary Challenge: Gunter Grass--how sorry I am that I have forgotten how to do the umlaut for the "u" in Gunter on the computer. I will try to remedy that. In any case, I've been mesmerized by this 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature winner's 2006 memoir Peeling the Onion, in which Grass (born in 1927) reveals all he can remember about his childhood after age 10, wartime, and immediate postwar experiences, including the (some would say) scandalous fact that he was a 17-year-old soldier in the Waffen SS from early 1945 until the war's end in early May of that year. His belated revelation of his few months of wartime activities caused enormous controversy in Germany and in literary circles. Why was he silent about his past for so long, many Germans wanted to know.

The controversy is intellectually interesting because of what it says about German collective memory and twenty-first century understandings about Germany's past, but for me personally as a far-removed observer, I think the facts speak for themselves: that his assignment to the SS (artillery) was not his choice, nor was enlistment his choice. As a teenaged boy who had yet to shave a beard, that's where the authorities assigned him.

Yet in the memoir, Grass takes full responsibility for all the questions he never asked, for the actions he did not take, and for the shame and bewilderment he has felt and still feels concerning Germany's actions in World War II and its perpetration of the Holocaust.

As a work of literature, Peeling the Onion is a tour de force and not to be missed. Every paragraph is immaculately rendered. Not to be missed!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

International Bestselling Thriller

I've been immersed in German author Sebastian Fitzek's first thriller, Therapy (2006), a bestseller that's been published in 22 languages. I've had a chilling, mystifying roller-coaster ride traveling alongside a psychiatrist who's been struggling to maintain his sanity following a four-year search for his young daughter who vanished without a trace. When a beautiful schizophrenic woman tracks him down to his father's seaside cottage on the North Sea island of Parkum, he is confronted with her wild claims that his daughter may still be alive.

Full of atmosphere, a punishing hurricane, and twists and turns that have left me baffled, wondering, "Who is the really crazy person here?" Fast-paced and almost impossible to put down, yet not a sophisticated read. Highly recommended, especially when a break from heavy reading is needed. Unfortunately, Fitzek, who seems a loving dogowner based on personal photos on his website, does depict images of a person killing a dog--I skipped over that page and tried not to think about it. This worked fine for this dog lover, but I thought I'd mention it in case others feel differently.

Yes, I'm reading Die Therapie for my German Postwar Literary Challenge. Anything goes for this challenge, as long as the book is German and published after 1945. Fitzek is obviously a fan of British and American thrillers because the conventions of the English-language genre are observed. Yet I was extremely interested in one aside that is presented apart from the action or the plot. (Inside every German writer is the crux of 20th-century German history.)

Viktor, the psychiatrist, is being interrogated by another psychiatrist.

" 'Remember the uproar about the forged Hitler diaries? asked Viktor. 'Remember how the newspapers fell for the scam?'

Viktor goes on to explain that he once spoke with a publishing executive whose company had been poised to publish the forged diaries. Viktor says, "He [the executive] said, 'We staked our reputations on those diaries. We'd risked too much for them not to be real. It was a case of seeing what we wanted to see; we were convinced they were genuine because the alternative was too awful to contemplate. We weren't looking for signs that we'd been conned; we were looking for proof that we were right.'"

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Freedom of Summer Reading

I am so keenly appreciating the time and the freedom of summer vacation to pursue my reading interests in many different directions. What a luxury and a privilege!

I thought I might be teaching this summer, but since that didn't work out, I am not bothered in the slightest. I begin and end each day reading, with plenty of outdoor walking and nature time in between to balance the mix.

On Monday, I brought home a load of German lit library finds, some that I ordered through inter-library loan and some that were on Crandall's shelves. But I need to balance the German literature with lighter reads. My problem is this: Because Sasha and Ken were waiting for me in the car, I did not do a complete "library shop." Sasha had just had her vet visit (she's 100 percent healthy, praise be!), and I was aware I was not on my own time.

I just finished the 346-page My Soul to Take: A Novel of Iceland(scroll down for details), and I must say the last 50 pages left me with my head spinning. This mystery had far too many intricate details to be worked out at the tail end of the book. Yes, I'm glad I read it, but only because I loved the first 280 pages. The end was pure brain overload. And I must say, I did enjoy the setting and description of Icelandic life and history. My advice: Have a dark roast coffee at your elbow when you hit page 280 and then dive your way through to the end of the book!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Talking Detective Fiction by P.D. James

An absolutely perfect June day, the kind that one dreams about but rarely experiences. Sunny, not too warm, with a cooling north wind. I spent a great deal of time wandering the fields and woods today, and a good bit of it with Sasha. We could use more of such weather at this time of year! Butterflies, neotropical migrant birds, wildflowers, gorgeous.

I'm galloping throughTalking Detective Fiction , which is a fascinating history of British detective fiction. It's especially illuminating about the development of the modern detective novel from its 19th-century origins until the present day, with emphasis on the genre's "Golden Age," the period between World Wars I and II. I especially loved the chapter in which P.D. James discusses the work of Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, and Allingham (sorry, the writer's first name begins with "M"). In retrospect, what I enjoyed most was learning about classic authors and how they fit into the entire retrospective of the history of detective fiction.

I haven't read most of the mentioned authors, with the exception of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, and Josephine Tey. The only work of Tey's that I've read is The Daughter of Time, which I've always felt I'd love to read again.

I found it intriguing that James admires the contemporary American detective novelist Sara Paretsky. As far as I can remember, I've never read anything of hers, though I may look her up now.

Talking Detective Fiction, just 208 pages, published in 2009, has captured my interest enough to explore a number of the authors James discussed.

For my German Postwar Literary Challenge, I will be going to Crandall Library tomorrow (Monday afternoon). I'm eager to read another German novel in translation.

Friday, June 17, 2011

German Postwar Literary Challenge

My dilemma: I have no German novels or memoirs left in the house and I need to continue with my GPLC challenge. I must get to Crandall Library, though I feel guilty contemplating such a journey because I don't want to leave Sasha who is still settling in. Yet we also need FOOD, though Hank, a client of Ken's, brought us some elk chops from Montana tonight. I've never had elk and I must say it's becoming a trendy gourmet meat these days. Elk is dry and must be marinated, Hank told me. Great!

One of the books I want to pick up tomorrow: In My Brother's Shadow: A Life and Death in the SS by Uwe Timm, a German author born in 1940. This memoir or series of reflections is about his memories of his much older brother. I'm anxious to read it.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Alas, My Nook is Lost!

My Nook is a casualty of our trip to Massachusetts. Evidently I left it behind within the covers of our hotel room's bed, no doubt due to my haste to leave Tuesday morning to pick up our new dog, Sasha. I called the hotel, of course, but no one has turned it in. Fortunately Barnes & Noble has put a block on my Nook for me, so no one can charge new books and magazines to my credit card. Phew!

Unfortunately, I love reading books and magazines on the Nook. The illuminated screen makes it possible for me to see more clearly and read faster, during the day and especially at night. That has been the biggest benefit for me and one that was totally unexpected. I also appreciate the way I can download books instantly--no waiting time. Sigh. Yes, I will buy another NookColor eventually.

In addition to the Icelandic mystery, My Soul to Take by Yrsa Sigurdardottir (see my previous post), I've started reading the American novel What is Left the Daughter(scroll to the bottom of the link) by Howard Norman, which is set in northern Nova Scotia in World War II. A German U-boat's sinking of the Newfoundland ferry Caribou jeopardizes the fate of a German/Danish student, who is suspected of being involved in the tragedy. Two of Norman's novels have been nominated for the National Book Award, The Bird Artist and Northern Lights.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sasha Loves to Read!

Sasha is so sweet and loves to cuddle. She adores creeks already, but is having trouble eating. The Purina One label that she's accustomed to eating is not tempting her one bit. The Science Diet brand, which all of our dogs have loved, is the only thing she'll touch, though she's never had it before. (!) New dog owners are supposed to provide initially the food the dog is accustomed to. We have tried so hard to do that. Hmmm... I don't want her to starve, so Science Diet it is, though I'm keeping her portions small to start with.

Sasha likes to walk outdoors and explore, and she loves to come in and lie by my side while I read on the couch. She really, really grooves on lying quietly by my side while I read! She also likes to sit on the couch between Ken and me while we watch tv in the evenings. Spoiled already!

I'm looking forward to the time when she's more settled and things don't spook her as much. She's in the final week of her season or "heat," which may be affecting her behavior. Decades ago, I had a beloved yellow labrador that I considered breeding. She was "nutso" during her three weeks of estrus, so I know it can affect behavior profoundly. Four months from now, when Sasha's uterus is smaller, harder, and is ready, we'll have her spayed.

Right now she's lying quietly beside me while I write this entry. She is a calm dog, which is a dogsend!!!

I'm gobbling up the memoir The Tennis Partner: A Doctor's Story of Friendship and Loss by Abraham Verghese.

I've also started a new mystery, My Soul to Take: A Novel of Iceland by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. I'm enjoying it, which is more than I can say for her first internationally acclaimed mystery, Last Rituals. I read about 50 pages of that title long ago, but it was so weird, so New Agey strange and downright gross to boot, that I couldn't abide it. I'm nearly to page 50 with My Soul to Take and I'm intrigued and eager to read more. A good sign!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The Tennis Partner & Home Again

Monday Ken and I spent the night in a very nice hotel not far from Sasha's (former) home. I spent the late afternoon and post-dinnertime evening reading The Tennis Partner, a memoir by Abraham Verghese, the Indian expatriate from Ethiopia and the author of Cutting for Stone, which I finished a week or so ago.

I'm now halfway through the 326-page book and am finding it rivetting. I believe this is because I'm finding Abraham Verghese, the writer and the person, fascinating. I've been reading about him and about his life and he speaks to me on a profound level. His books are replete with medical details, which I enjoy, but they also have a deep humanistic component.

Yet The Tennis Partner is most of all about relationships: Verghese's relationship with David, his protege at the hospital and tennis partner who is struggling to recover from a crippling addiction; his two sons; his wife from whom he is estranged; and lastly and most importantly, his relationship with himself. Verghese does not spare his psyche the scalpel, which I appreciate most of all.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

I Hope Sasha Likes to Read

Welcome, Sasha! We are picking up our new golden retriever on Tuesday morning in south-central Massachusetts, which was the birthplace of Sophie, our previous golden. Sasha has been much anticipated in this household, to say the least. I went shopping for her today. I bought a beautiful, sturdy 6-foot leash to complement her reddish coat, a bag of her current brand of dog food, and a cushy and comfy pad for the crate. (Sasha has slept in a crate for all of her 2+ years, so we won't encourage her to sleep in a bed with humans until she really settles in and let's us know she's ready).

I hope she likes to cuddle, play, hike, swim, snowshoe, and enjoy time in the kitchen when I'm cooking. I like having a cooking partner. And a reading pal! The breeder told us she's "sweet, beautiful, and extremely laid back," so I hope she likes couchie as well as active pursuits.

Today was a very cool (in the 50s), rainy day from start to finish. I nearly devoured the whole of In a Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming, but I still haven't finished it, though I'm enjoying it tremendously. There's nothing like a mystery with fully developed characters.

I have another mystery on tap, to intersperse with my German Postwar Literary Challenge novels and memoirs. It's My Soul to Take: A Novel of Iceland by Yrsa Sigurdardottir translated by Bernard Scudder and Anna Yates. In 2010, I read Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason, the first novel in this author's detective series set in Reykjavik. I'd like to read another.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

German Postwar Literary Challenge

A hot and very humid day in the high 80s (just nudging 90) and I decided I wouldn't step outside all day. I've been out hiking and biking for days until today.

For my early morning read, I started a new mystery that many people have recommended: Julia Spencer-Fleming's In the Bleak Midwinter. Spencer-Fleming sets her mystery series in what she calls the "piedmont Adirondacks" region. The top two sleuths include a young ex-Army woman Episcopal priest and a seasoned ex-Army police chief. It's my "I'm just relaxing" read. And the novel's well done and has won several awards.

The German Postwar Literary Challenge: I realize I've been vigorously pursuing it, so I might as well, as my father used to say, "make a league of it," and announce my whole-hearted participation, just in case anyone wants to join me. This is a very simple challenge. Read one book by a German author published after 1945 and you're in.

Perhaps you're already a German-in-translation reader. Any book that you have read in the past counts as well. Films count too. Did you like Das Boot? (Incredible, highly acclaimed WWII submarine film!) Or The Reader based on the novel by Bernhard Schlink? (I highly recommend both the book and the film!)

I've nearly finished the extraordinary novella Lost by Hans-Ulrich Treichel, which was published by Pantheon in 1999. The narrator, like Treichel, was born after WWII. The narrator is an only child, age eight, whose parents never let him forget that their beloved firstborn, Arnold, was tragically lost when the Russians invaded their East Prussian farming village in 1945. Pursued by a horde of Russian soldiers, the narrator's mother passed the infant Arnold into the arms of a woman not under pursuit. Terrible trauma came next for the narrator's mother, followed by grief and mourning for the lost son and forced relocation (by the Allies) to Westphalia in western Germany. The novel, mixing pathos and absurdly comic moments, follows the narrators' parents frustrated attempts to search for Arnold. In such a novel, the reader comes closer to learning what it was like to be German after Hitler. Mind-blowing stuff!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

We're finally having some decent seasonable, sunny weather, though it's been very windy. I've been walking, birdwatching, bicycling, and tomorrow I have my first actual horseback riding lesson. I'm a bit nervous, but my teacher called to say my horse "Cruiser" is a champ.

After researching the leftist terrorist movement in Germany in the late 60s and 70s, I finally tackled the last half of The Weekend by Bernhard Schlink. I kept researching and reading, then got hold of the Der Spiegel review to see what a German critic thought of the novel. I'm still so surprised that it was published here in the U.S., because it is essential to understand the dynamics of postwar German history and culture, from 1945--9/11 to really grasp the plot and what Schlink is trying to say. A very cerebral book, but very interesting.

And, yes, I'm still reading and loving Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. I'm two-thirds of the way through now, and I would be further along if it were not for the French Open tennis championships.

For my next read I'm longing for some mystery or detective fiction. Maybe it's time I closed in on finishing Stieg Larsson's series by reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest.