In the High Peaks

Monday, January 25, 2016

Madonnas in Leningrad and I'm Feeling a Dose of Comfort Reads Coming On

Last week I spent three long days in Albany doing research at the New York State Library and Archives. Yes, the days were long, but it was interesting work. When I got out of there each evening, in the bitter cold of last week, I immediately zipped over to my hotel, and instead of exercising as I should have, I enveloped myself in Debra Dean's debut novel Madonnas of Leningrad, which was published in 2006. I've meant to read it ever since the year it was published, and finally when it was available for the Nook for $1.99 about a year or two ago, I snatched it up.

It's the story of a young woman in Leningrad during the Siege of WWII, a woman passionate about the art within the walls of The Hermitage, the exquisite Russian museum within a stone's throw of The Winter Palace. The war comes and overwhelming hardships along with it. The women work tirelessly day and night, without adequate food, to remove all the precious art works from The Hermitage to safety in the countryside. As the German blockade of the city results in starvation, hopelessness, and death, she continues her duties as air warden on the rooftop of The Hermitage. She falls in love with a young man on his way to the front. Then, with winter, life becomes virtually impossible. The only thing that keeps her sane is her ability to walk the empty rooms of The Hermitage and envelop herself in her memories of the art works that once hung there. Those memories are her sustenance.

Interwoven with this story of the early 1940s is the story of the same woman, much older, whose memory is failing exponentially day by day. She has her husband to keep her grounded, but more and more she is falling irretrievably to reveries of her past. She becomes lost but her memories have her body and soul bound in protection that is as impermeable as cotton batting.

This is a short novel at 197 pages. I found it engaging, though I must confess that the last quarter of the novel was not focused as the rest of the book was. The end of the novel lacked resolution, which I know is not necessarily a flaw. I enjoyed the read nevertheless.

My life is exciting, but it's been very challenging these days because of the never-ending loads of work. In just a couple of weeks my brother and I must move our mother into a unit for Alzheimer's patients. Note: It's a highly recommended unit where she will be well taken care of. But it will be a big loss for her and for us because she fiercely loved her home in her assisted living community where she has lived for 12 years and where she has many friends. One mustn't get maudlin, but the end of life does pose some difficult losses for people and their families. I'm feeling that "one loss at a time" pattern, reminding me that one must live for today, as much as we possibly can.

Bring on the comfort reads! So you probably know I'll probably move on to K is for Killer by Sue Grafton, and let Kinsey Milhone strike again. What else shall I treat myself too? I hope I don't insult anyone by saying that Maisie Dobbs is a comfort read for me. And then I may treat myself to one of the wintry books on Cath's Read Warbler list. (See previous entries for details.) And please note, you can connect to Read Warbler via my "Blogs of Substance" List.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

My List of Very Snowy, Wintry Books

A Slightly Boring Introduction to My List:
As I browsed the lists of books I've read, my bookshelves, and my book stacks, I discovered that the large majority of the books I've read have not been set in wintry places or were only partially set during winter. In other words, the winter setting was not a major component of the plot.

Then there are the books where the weather or climate of an area is so crucial, so central to the plot, that it assumes the importance of a character.

I'd like to encourage every reader to add their favorite wintry books in the comments, or to write a blog post of their own featuring their favorites. I'll help alert others to your post.

Winter Blizzard/Storm Novels

Chill Factor by Sandra Brown (A suspense thriller set in the western mountains of North Carolina.) The blizzard is a character. This is the only Sandra Brown novel I've ever read, and I picked up this book because of the blizzard. I was not disappointed.

The Winter People by Phyllis Whitney  (Very wintry and a chilling plot. A Whitney special title, I'd say.)

Snowfire by Phyllis Whitney. (Wonderfully wintry and good.)

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas by Stephanie Barron. 2014.  (Christmas party-goers are snowbound on an estate for all 12 days—it just keeps snowing and snowing and no one can go home and get away from the murderer. A few slow spots in the middle and three-quarters through, but overall worth it if you thrill to being completely cut off to the world by snow.)

Winter Study by Nevada Barr  (Anna Pidgeon studies wolves in winter on an island on Lake Superior in US/Canada. Thriller. Deep winter atmosphere. Brrrr... Terror.

A Cold Day for Murder by Dana Stabenow. Winter and murder in Alaska. The first in Stabenow's series. This one won an Edgar. I definitely recommend it!
*****Cold River by William Judson.  What starts out as an Adirondack Wilderness winter adventure for a seasoned woodsman and his son and daughter turns into a battle for survival, a test of wits, and a tale of terror-filled suspense. How Judson managed to combine all these elements I'll never know. First published in 1976, it's still in print and available on Amazon and other retailers as a mass-market paperback. ($6.99). The best title on the list. Set in the 1920s. Unforgettable. (Don't ask me why a canoe!! is on the cover. In this frozen story, there were no canoes.

“Burning  Daylight,” a short story by Jack London, which features a blizzard. [This is the only list item I haven't read.]

“To Build a Fire” by Jack London.  No snow, but harrowing, killing cold. I reread this once a year! 

 The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper  (YA fantasy), set in Britain. Cooper is an American author who lived in Britain for years during mid-life.

Russian Winter by Diane Kalotay. 2010. A young ballerina in Leningrad during the years just before the Revolution and just after. 

The Siege Winter by Arianna Franklin and Norman (2015)  A thrilling historical novel set in England during the 11th-12th centuries.

The Endless Steppe by Esther Hautzig. This book became a YA/middle-school novel in the U.S., but Hautzig wrote about her childhood for adults. Early in 1939, she was a young girl living in eastern Poland, in Vilna, with her extended family. The Russians came, rounded up many families of Jews, and deported them to Siberia to work in the mines. This is the story of her and her family's triumphant survival. And it is not a sad book. The setting is exquisitely depicted. They arrive not in winter, but in the heat-scorching of mid-summer. The Winter follows.

Katia by E.M. Almedingen. This is an exuberant tale of 19th-century provincial Russian gentry's lives based on the stories told to the author in her childhood. I so adore this book. The child Katia is so cherished by all her aunts, uncles, and extended family. Imagine being on a year-long vacation. That's what life was like for this family. Full of fascinating details and lots and lots of wintry adventures. In Britain, this is available as a used book but with a different title. Maybe someone remembers from several years ago when I last wrote about this wondrous book?

In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming   I echo Cath's (of Read Warbler) endorsement of this one. Not only wintry, but a book with extraordinary characters and an excellent plot. Some of you may recall that this is the first book in my favorite mystery series of all time.

Sleigh Bells in the Snow by Sarah Morgan  (Christmas romance fare but very, very snowy and good.)

I will stop for now, but I know I'm forgetting some. Like...When Jays Fly to Barbmo... about a half-Sami, half Norwegian girl above the Arctic Circle. Her life during winter darkness. Coming of age. Top-notch! Probably hard to find, though possible as a used book here. I think this book was also sold in the UK.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Snowy Books List Coming, Inspired by Read Warbler

Do you sometimes choose a book for its snowy or wintry setting? Have you ever chosen a book just because there is a blizzard in it? Do you thrill to read about characters who are battling the most severe weather winter has to offer?

I naturally answer yes to all of these questions. And I encourage you to contribute your favorites if you answered yes to one or more of these questions. Please visit Read Warbler for a compelling list of snowy, wintry reads. And, if you feel so inclined, it would be fascinating if you post your own list on your blog. If you feel inspired, I'd love to know about more books that sate my appetite for winter wooliness.

I'm compiling my list as we speak, but it's not completed yet. I hope to have it up later tomorrow or Sunday.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Bulgarian Fiction for 2016

Thomas at his MyTwostotinki blog has announced a Bulgarian Literature Month for this coming June 2016. I have never read a novel by a Bulgarian writer, so I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to do so. Bulgaria is overshadowed by the more ostentatious nation-states that lie around it. So, I did a little research, and I ordered a book that won the Bulgarian Book Award (not sure the year it won, although the book was first published in 2008). The book is Eighteen Percent Gray by Zachary Karabashliev. It does sound like a zany romp.

An excerpt from the Publishers Weekly brief review reads, "Karabashliev, the eponymous main character of Karabashliev’s debut novel, is experiencing a major life crisis. Once a passionate photographer, Zack moved with his wife Stella to the United States from Bulgaria, the author’s native home, to attend graduate school. After running out of money, Zack sells his camera equipment and lies to get a job at a pharmaceutical company in Southern California. Just as Stella’s painting career takes off, she abruptly leaves, fed up with Zack’s conforming to middle-class life..." [Yes, this is a novel, not a memoir.]

Thank goodness Open Source Books at the University of Rochester in New York has published a translation, and I am now waiting for my copy to arrive. Mind you, I am not waiting until June to read it. This year has so many variables in the air that I need to read it this winter and write my thoughts about it before anything else happens.

I have met so many Eastern European and Balkan young people while living in the Adirondacks. Many come to work in the hotels, restaurants, and other aspects of the tourist trade here during the summers. I find them and their stories fascinating.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

I Stole an Hour to Read Sue Grafton's Kinsey Milhone

After submitting a report that literally consumed three weeks of very, very long hours of work each day, I had to force myself to stop working this afternoon to read for an hour.

In fact, as soon as I submitted the report on Thursday, I felt an adrenaline rush pushing me to buy the next Sue Grafton mystery for my Nook. And I started reading J is for Judgment at 4pm today. (Lapse in time due to catching up with work for other clients.) Unlike the Horrible H is for Homicide, J is for Judgment hasn't disappointed in the slightest. I can't describe how wonderful it feels to relax with my most beloved private investigator, Kinsey Milhone. At 34 years of age now, she is as brazen and as "out of the mold" as she can be. Grafton's metaphors coming out of Kinsey's mouth make me laugh out loud--they are so creative and wonderfully idiosyncratic. Kinsey's voice and tone are impeccable. Check out Kinsey's biography.  I read for an hour and felt at peace. For a view of Sue Grafton and photos of her to-die-for writer's office, follow this link.  I have had the experience, on several occasions, of women readers telling me they don't like Kinsey or Sue Grafton's series. I must admit I find myself scratching my head after such a confession. I find myself thinking, "Well, it's a good thing you don't know me very well because I'm like her in many respects." I must admit that I HIDE my Kinsey-ness from the world as much as possible, as I believe most women do, because I don't think most women of a certain age find her traits respectable or admirable. But I adore her and admire her.

I'm still reading The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, as much as I can each day before bed and sometimes for a few minutes in the early mornings. The plot has had buried heat smoldering and now that fire is  building, and sparks are starting to fly with the horrors of intense conflict that I sense are coming. This novel is everything the critics say it is. Superlative!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

What Santa Brought

For Christmas I received a number of books that have been tops on my list since fall.

One is The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, which I'm now reading and enjoying tremendously. (427 pages)

Another is The Chord by Geraldine Brooks, a historical novel about King David from Biblical times.

And the last is The Lake House by Kate Morton. I've only read two of her books and I look forward to reading more.

With Amazon credits, I treated myself to a hard copy of Lingo: Around the World in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren, a Dutch linguist, author, and polyglot. How I wish I were a polyglot! I can read French very well, can speak it a little, can read and speak a bit of German, and recall the smallest smidgin of Russian (only took one-year of college Russian). I would like to know so much more, but the hours this would consume would be impossible to manage.
All the same, I'm very interested in European languages, and I heartily recommend this book with many short, often 3-page long chapters. Perfect for reading on the run! The history of European languages fascinates me and always have. Do try this book if you feel the same. Highly recommended and lots of fun!

Monday, January 4, 2016

The New Year and Gaitskill's The Mare

Work consumed me over Christmas week and New Year's and ever since, although I did manage to take off Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

On New Year's Eve I finally finished Fall of Giants by Ken Follett. I'm glad I read it, but at nearly 1,000 pages, I'm not sure I'll continue his Twentieth Century trilogy. It was informative and engaging, true, but I've invested enough as it stands with me now.

I'm deeply enjoying The Mare by Mary Gaitskill, which I'm reading along with a friend who adores  animals, is a veterinarian, and owns two horses. I bought a copy for each of us for Christmas, because I have always been a horse lover and thought it would be fun.

First of all, you don't need to like animals to enjoy this book. It received high acclaim from The New York Times, Washington Post, The New Yorker, and among other top reviewers. It's the story of a young girl from the Dominican Republic who lives in the Bronx and who visits an upstate New York family during the summer as a Fresh Air "camper." She falls in love with horses, the family she stays with, and with her life upstate; and therein the struggle begins. The voices of the characters are exquisitely drawn.