In the High Peaks

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Book Passion in Translation: Appelfeld and Petterson

I was absolutely unprepared for the Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld's novel published in the U.S. in January 2017. The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping was, at first, inexplicably mesmerizing to me, and as I read on, it became a transformative reading adventure that spoke directly to my heart and soul.

Appelfeld's novels, of which there are many, are translated from the Hebrew into English.  Yet Hebrew is not Appelfeld's "mother tongue." He was born in 1932 in Bukovina, which is today part of Ukraine. After a horrific war, during which he was separated from his parents, he emigrated to Israel. German was his "mother tongue," and Hebrew is the language he adopted in his late teens, which he deliberately chose to write in, after much laborious work and study. This book is a work of art about how a young man, recently repatriated to Palestine, bears his crippling Palestinian War (1947-48) wounds to become enmeshed in the Hebrew language of the Bible, as a means to help him be a writer in Hebrew. Each character  in the book is without a family and is alone in Palestine. This novel is about how Erwin's deep sleeps reconnect him with the past and the strengths of his former family life and culture before the war, so that he can move forward to become a writer.
For those interested in this book, none of the horrors of the war years are revisited. The focus is solely on his travels to Palestine and his life there. In memory, he returns over and over to his pre-war life for sustenance and the will to claim his life as a writer. Extraordinary. I borrowed a library copy and must purchase it for my library--so many gems of wisdom.

Well, I certainly thought I was going to be able to write about the book I'm reading by my favorite contemporary writer of Norwegian fiction, Per Petterson. But, as it turns out, the beef stew is done, and I must move on to serve it. More soon!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

News Before I Sign Off for the Holiday Weekend

Ken's cousins are due early tomorrow morning from coastal Maine for the long weekend. It's hard to explain this, but they sometimes arrive before we're awake. Ken's cousin Tom likes to get going by two am and head west, not wanting to waste any of his limited time off. (If they were to wait for morning to depart, the trip would be many hours longer on the slim, two-lane back highways of central New Hampshire and Vermont.)

We'll have a big breakfast after they arrive and catch up. No doubt we'll be talking about our President's so easily proven falsehoods uttered during his press conference today.

And speaking of catching up, I'm concerned that I'll be finishing Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing in the next day or so, without much time to note my thoughts. (I'll have to jot them down on the fly and save for later to post later.)

My new book is Israeli writer's Ahron Appelfeld's  The Man Who Never Stopped Sleeping, translated into English from Hebrew. I started this before bed last night and was so overwhelmed (in a positive way) by the first 30 pages that I nearly couldn't put it down. More to come on this reading adventure.

Tomorrow I need to sneak out of the house in the late morning to go to the post office to pick up my copy of the 2016 nonfiction title The Romanovs, 1613-1918 by Simon Montefiore. The Romanov Sisters barely whet my appetite for the hard-core history of this dynasty, and the history of the Russian Empire.

If I need a cozy read during the weekend, which is likely to happen if I become really tired, then I have M.M. Kaye's mystery Death In Zanzibar on my Nook. I need to check on the publication of this one, but I believe it was during the late 1950s or early 1960s. I'll check.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Currently Reading: Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing

I've been hell-bent, for weeks now, trying to get a hold of Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing, a novel published in 2016. Ghyasi was born in Ghana and immigrated to the U.S. with her parents when she was a child, to Huntsville, Alabama. This novel follows the descendants of a one African woman in the mid-1700s in Ghana, through many generations, through two separate lines of descendants. One lineage continues to reside in Ghana, both in the Asante and Fante tribes. This side of the family's story is fascinating, because it deals with all the ins and outs of the slave trade wars in Africa, and particularly the battles among tribes, each who vie to be the most prominent in providing slaves to the British, Dutch, and American slavers who transport slaves to the colonies. Gripping!

The other line of descendants follows those who have been transported to the U.S. and who struggle to keep their families together in slavery present on Southern plantations.

This is Ghyasi's debut novel, many years in the works, and she is an exceptional writer.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Books Are Getting Very Russian Around Here

My reading bed in the loft is covered with Russian history-related novels and nonfiction right now. After all, it is 2017 and the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution.  Since age 14, I have been a Russian history and literature wonk. It all came about when on a dull, rainy Saturday in March, in my fifteenth year, my older brother took me to see David Lean's film Dr. Zhivago. My mind was blown away. After that, not only did I go out and buy a paperback copy of Boris Pasternak's masterpiece, I also became insatiably curious about Russian history from the Tsars through the Russian Revolution to the 1930s, a fascination that continues to this day. 

On the loft bed today I spent the day reading The Romanov Sisters by Helen Rappaport (2014), which I purchased, but which I never got around  to settling down with until now. So now I am deeply within. It is the history and biographies of the Grand Duchesses Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia, the daughters of the Tsar Nicholas II and Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna. Because Alix (Alexandra) was the grand-daughter of Queen Victoria, and the third-cousin of the Tsar Nicholas II, I find myself in dire need of a number of family trees. Relatives of the Grand Duchesses are frequently mentioned, but without a family tree map, I am a bit lost. Perhaps I'll search online. At 387 dense pages, with dozens of pages of footnotes, and an extraordinary bibliography (!), it will take me time to finish it, especially considering I have novels I'm choosing to read at the same time. 

I have nothing but accolades to lay upon Helen Dunmore's The Betrayal, which I described in a previous post.  I finished it this past weekend and I am amazed by this book. It is not only an extraordinarily well-written novel with fully developed characters, exquisite dialogue, and settings, but the history is absolutely true for 1952-53. How do I know? In my early teaching years, in my 20s, I spent a year teaching 5th grade reading and writing and social studies in a Boston-area Jewish K-8 school, housed in a synagogue, in which 25 percent of the students were Russian immigrants, knowing very little English.

I'd had a post-graduate year of college Russian, which helped, and I became very friendly with one family, who had a son in my class. Over the sharing of mutual dinners, picnics by the sea, and coastal hikes, I learned that Yuli (nickname for the Russian equivalent of Julian), my student's father, had witnessed both his father's and mother's arrests, in their home, in the middle of the night, in Moscow in late 1952, at a time when many professional Jews were rounded up and sent to Siberia to labor camps. Yuli was a very young teenager (12-13), suddenly left on his own, out-of-his-mind bewildered. Fortunately, after several days, friends of his parents came and took him in to their home. His parents eventually returned, a couple of years after  Stalin's death in 1953.  From all of his stories, and my reading,  I know that Dunmore's The Betrayal is accurate, painstakingly so, if you consider her bibliography and contacts and websites that informed the background of the novel.
All very interesting. Dunmore is truly one of my favorite authors.

So! Update! Just today, Carson, our UPS friend, got stuck on the ice in our driveway, yet delivered a very recently published novel Patriots by Sana Krasikov, who emigrated from the Soviet Union to the U.S. as a youngster and is now a writer living in Brooklyn with her husband and children.  This is "a sweeping, multi-generational saga" that begins in 1934 with the daughter of Russian Jewish immigrants living in Brooklyn, who returns to the Soviet Union, along with many other former immigrants to the U.S., because the Soviets have promised jobs and golden opportunities in their country. At this moment, I don't have the title of the work of history that details this reverse exodus during the Great Depression and its dreadful consequences. Due to the stellar reviews of this book, I snatched it up and have started reading it.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Yesterday I finished Hillbilly Elegy: The Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance. Vance grew up with one leg in his grandparents' and extended family's Appalachian town of Jackson, Kentucky and one leg in the western Ohio city of Middletown, which lies north of Cincinnati and south of Dayton, Ohio. His grandparents left Kentucky for Middletown (without ever really leaving Kentucky, as he explains so well), as did many other Appalachian families, to work for Armco, Middletown's main industry in the years after World War II.

Vance writes about his own life as well as his parents, grandparents, and other relatives, and the culture they brought with them to Ohio. He also depicts the lives of struggling white working-class people exceedingly clearly, from his experience, while occasionally dropping in spot-on statistics that illuminate the problems that "hillbillies" from Kentucky and Appalachia have been faced with.

Then one day Armco moved out of Middletown, but many of its workers remained, with no future, and no hopes or knowledge of how to find a better future.

Vance's family members are extremely troubled people and a more dysfunctional family would be hard to find, even in fiction. Yet Vance survives largely because of the consistent love of his grandmother. After a stint in the Marine Corps, which included duty in Iraq during the Iraq War, he manages to find himself and get to college, and from there to law school at Yale, with successes following that feat.

His goal to portray a culture in crisis is very focused--he keeps returning to the theme and reveals a world that is very strange if you grew up in a well-educated white family in the Northeast. I can only speak for the book as a member of that culture, and the revelations I gained were interesting and  well worth the reading. Highly recommended!

Friday, February 3, 2017

In the Midst Of Reading: Helen Dunmore's The Betrayal

A crazy week with loads of crazy things happening:
At least I've had a glorious book by Helen Dunmore to keep me captivated. The Betrayal, set in Leningrad about eight years after the end of World War II, is a sequel (of sorts) to The Siege, her novel set during the World War II German-led strangle-hold and bombardment of Leningrad, which lasted 1000 days, or thereabouts (better check my facts), and which caused massive starvation but not the defeat of the city.

Anna, her doctor-husband Andrei, and Anna's parents' youngest child Kolya, all of whom just barely survived the Siege on Leningrad, are trying desperately to lead a normal life, despite oppressive Fascist conditions and continuing post-war shortages. Stalin is still living, so the novel is set in around 1952 or so. (Stalin died in 1953.)

Andrei is well-satisfied in his career as a specialist in juvenile rheumatic disorders at a major Leningrad teaching hospital. Anna works as a nursery-school teacher, who also works tirelessly on pre-school research studies for the director of her school.

Andrei and Anna have a tender, warm relationship and manage to carefully handle Anna's 16-year-old brother with all the patience and love they can muster.

The inciting incident: Andrei is called upon to treat the child of a top-level Communist, who has  an osteosarcoma in his tibia. Treating cancer is not Andrei's specialty, but, no matter, he is called upon to treat him. The child's father's name strikes terror in every Leningrader's heart. "Volkov is the boy's father," a name that no one dares to utter in a voice above a whisper. Colleagues warn Andrei to abandon Leningrad immediately before he becomes more deeply implicated, but he does not, due to his strong sense of responsibility toward all of his patients.

This is undeniably an edge-of-your-seat thriller, but what is so lovely is that alongside all the strife, there is the close family life, and especially the family's love of their dacha, where they grow vegetables, and which is just outside Leningrad's outskirts.

This novel was nominated for several prizes and won one. (Help! But the book is upstairs--Can't list them right now.)

If you are into flawlessly written prose, Dunmore will be right up your alley. Perhaps you've read her WWII English ghost story, The Greatcoat (perhaps my favorite--so subtly done), or her post-World War I novel The Lie. I know I absolutely must read all of her books.