In the High Peaks

Thursday, June 29, 2017

German Lit in Translation and Dark Nights!

It's so dark, so very dark, that it's creepy around here. I know it's just dense cloud cover and rain, but we have 3 hours of daylight left, and sun should be streaming through the kitchen window. I bought candles today to deal with our light deficiency. Actually, I do love the deep darkness of December and January. And that's what we're having right now. Just haul out the candles, pretend that it's winter, and all is well.

German literature in translation:
 I recently finished reading All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski, the acclaimed German writer, who came into his own in the 1960s and 1970s. This novel was published in Germany in 2005. It was translated and published in English in 2015 by Anthea Bell. The most puzzling question for me is how does this novel compare, or fit in with, the dozens of works Kempowski wrote before it? Very, very few of his works of fiction, prose, and drama have been published in English. How can one possibly make an assessment of All for Nothing, especially as a person who does not competently read German? And, why oh why, was this particular book cherry-picked to be translated into English, out of all the acclaimed books he has published??? I find these facts especially frustrating as a reader.

Having worked in publishing in one form or another for many years, I know a little bit about how this sort of thing works. A foreign book is chosen for translation because editors and publishers' marketing executives think that a given German title "will speak" to English-language audiences in English-speaking countries. And, what exactly, for example, did they think would make this an ideal title for English readers?

Unless an English-speaking reader also speaks German, one cannot assess how All for Nothing fits with the other titles Kempowski has published about the Nazi and post-Nazi eras.

All for Nothing is set in a dull hamlet in East Prussia in January 1945. The Russians have already invaded and torn apart a number of the largest East Prussian cities, killing and raping Germans, just as the Germans have killed and raped their countrymen during the German invasion of Russia.

But in this little enclave away in the country, a wealthy family hangs on in their magnificent estate. They have plentiful food, because of their livestock and crops from the previous season. The husband and owner is a high official in the Wehrmacht, stationed in "safety" somewhere in Italy. His wife and his son live with the husband's aunt, as well as with lots of Ukrainian and Polish servants in this protected place, which seems very distant from the final destruction of Germany that is ongoing around them. Things deteriorate slowly. The façade crumbles.

The most striking thing about this novel is the way in which no character cared for anyone else, except for the 12-year-old son Peter. We see him care for the people in his life--his tutor, his mother, his animals, the refugees who come through to stay for few days. Peter's mother, even though we have her point of view, she clearly cares nothing for him or anyone, nor does his aunt care, nor do the Ukrainian or Poles, or anyone he meets in flight, when the Russians are truly on their doorstep.

Again, I have to say, without access to Kempowski's other work, I'm lost. Yes, he's anti-the-Nazi generation to the core, and bitterly angry. He pounds down the carelessness and the folly of the self-serving Germans who were adults in the Nazi era, but so did other German writers. How are we to assess Kempowski??  

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Yikes! Preparing Books and TV for Ken's Departure

Each summer Ken goes to visit the Maine island cottage, which his family has owned since the early 1900s. He usually stays a bit over a week with his favorite cousin. I have accompanied him over the years, but we have a beloved dog now, who is completely calm at home, but a crazy, nervous wreck on long car trips. (We just barely make it to vet appointments, which are an hour away from us.) We adopted our Sasha at age 3, and she unfortunately seems to have had some difficult experiences in her past, to put it mildly. Still, as long as she's in her home environment, she is as placid and happy as all get out.

Long intro, yes. Just found out Ken leaves Wednesday.
Time to stock in the books and television companionship. (We live in the boondocks, so virtual relationships are necessary.)

On Netflix: I will watch The Crown, for a second time, from start to finish. Six episodes, I think. One each night. Should take up most of the week. I thought that this series was very well done. As long as you can get used to Dr. Who as Prince Phillip, you're all set. I loved the first go-round and vowed to watch it again. At which moment, Ken said, "Why not while I'm in Maine?"   So here goes.

I think this is the perfect time to read Devices and Desires by P.D. James. So that's set in stone. I know I'm in for a treat there.

I am a devoted fan of Paul Auster. I found his latest book at the library--4321. It is 869 pages long, and it is 869 densely-packed pages. Very little leading between the lines, shallow margins, you name it. Not an easy read, by any means.
Premise: A male baby is born in 1947 in Newark, New Jersey (This is Auster's birth year and birthplace, by the way). The book then depicts four separate, very different life experiences for that baby boy.
I brought 4321 home to have a preliminary appointment with it, and to ask it, "Are you worthy of my time? Are you worthy of the books I won't be able to read because I'm reading you? I'm still adjudicating.

Next book before I even consider reading Auster:  The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. I missed this one when it was published 20 or so years ago. Have you read it? What were your thoughts?

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Russian Revolution Centenary--A Great Book Discovery

One of my reading adventures this week would not have happened without the New York Public Library. (That's the New York [City] Public Library.] Because I am a resident of New York State, I am permitted to have all the privileges of a New York Public Library Card Holder. In fact, I've had my NYPL library card for a number of years. Lots and lots of state funds support this library, so it's great that all New York State residents can take advantage.

I use Flipster often. Flipster at NYPL includes 114 popular magazines that can be read remotely. My favorite is Library Journal, because that's how I find out about lots of new books being published.

But my BIG discovery this week was CloudLibrary, an e-book and audiobook company owned by 3M, available through NYPL, which includes many, many downloadable e-books, both fiction and nonfiction. Their list is not dumb-downed--how wonderful!

This week I downloaded and have been reading a treasure of a book published for the Russian Revolution Centenary (1917). Caught in the Revolution: Petrograd, 1917—A World on the Edge by Helen Rappaport is an outstanding blow-by-blow description of all of the events of 1917 in St. Petersburg (named Petrograd in 1914, and Leningrad still later). Rappaport, the author of my much-enjoyed The Romanov Sisters, which I read in February, wrote this by uncovering and deeply ferreting out accounts by all the English, Scottish, American, and French diplomats, bankers, businessmen, medical specialists, and journalists living in St. Petersburg at  the time. The city was full of foreigners. And, until now, no one has collected their eyewitness accounts of Petrograd in 1917, from the February Revolution through the Bolshevik October Revolution.

The account is mesmerizing, and unfolds, in some ways like a novel, as the reader follows the key eyewitnesses' accounts of all that occurred. This book makes it abundantly clear that the so-called "February Revolution," was every bit as bloody and mutinous and out of control as the Bolshevik Revolution.  Hats off to Rappaport for writing this book, with such care to sources and such abundant research.

Friday, June 16, 2017

In Memoriam: Helen Dunmore (1952-2017)

Oh, it has been a dark day in my personal literary world. And, for many others' as well, I'm sure. I counted Helen Dunmore as one of my favorite contemporary authors. Her books have moved me deeply, deeply. Her death is tragic, because cancer robbed her of many more creative years. She was only 64. (Born December 12, 1952).

Just this past February I read her novel The Betrayal, which is set in the last 7 months of 1952, during the final months of Stalin's dictatorship, when no Russian could be certain that they were safe from exile and decades of imprisonment in Siberia. Her story of a family trying desperately to weather this storm and eke out some happy times was extremely moving.  Here is a link to my previous comments about this novel.

I thought that The Lie was an exceptionally well-done, very different, and provocative novel of a returning World War I veteran to Britain, though I quarreled with her about the ending.

I simply loved The Greatcoat, a novel that did not win any prizes as most of her novels did. It's a pastiche, really, a minor ghost story, and a major "sock in the ribs" for anyone, anywhere who has lived in a place or on a site where desperate history happened. It's not a long novel, but it's one that I will read again and again.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Summer Project: Painting Gardens and Garden Memoirs

Like the meteorologists in the Northeast, I consider June 1st (or Memorial Day) the beginning of true Summer, with a capital "S". Several weeks ago I became involved in what I now hope will be a deep, deep Summer Project.

My plan is to visit many gardens all over the Northeast (well, probably not Maine) and take many photographs and careful notes. I then hope to come home and paint gardens, in pastels, watercolor, and if I'm lucky, in oils. I may paint some in acrylic, but to tell the truth, acrylic paint and I do not work together harmoniously, although I have tried for so many years to make the relationship work out. Acrylics dry much, much too quickly for my eyes and brain, especially when I need  loads of time to think and consider what I'm doing.

I haven't been deep, deep into painting since the winter of 2010. So there's that hurdle to leap over.

Garden Books and Memoirs:
You're probably wondering how they fit into this picture. Right now I have collected such a cartload of these from lots of libraries. Several I own and a few have been recently purchased. Let me list some of the ones that I lose myself in for long stretches of time because of the incredible art and photography.

Painting the Modern Garden from Monet to Matisse. (Numerous authors.)
This huge book, which includes all the paintings from an exhibition that was shown in Cleveland, Ohio, and in London, is loaded with a wide variety of paintings from English, American, French, German, Scandinavian, and eastern European painters working between the late 19th century and the early 20th century. Also included are photographs of the gardens and painters, and stories of each garden and how they inspired individual painters.  I borrowed this one and then had to buy one for myself. It was a book I wouldn't be able to part with. Using coupons and gift cards, I only paid $18 including shipping for this remarkable $75 hardcover, very hefty book.

I then started searching for books written by people telling the stories of how they created their gardens. Quite a genre! What fun.

I first stumbled upon the several gardening books of Beverley Nichols (1898-1983). He wrote three about his gardens, and they remain the most popular of all his books to this day. They have been reprinted by Timber Press in Oregon. (Nichols also wrote novels, children's books, travel books, political books, and autobiographies, etc.)  So I found one of his gardening books in my network of libraries--Merry HallMerry Hall, although supposedly not his first account of his gardening, was an account of his first total- renovation gardens. It has been beloved for generations for the author's humor. I hope to be reading it soon.

My coffee--table favorite of the moment is HighGrove: An English Country Garden, a book replete with the most eye-defying knock-out photographs of all of Prince Charles's gardens at High Grove. Visitors do go there--maybe someday I will make it when they're open. A section of the book is devoted to each month of the year. When I examine these photographs (some spread out over two very large pages), I can imagine that I am there.

My last garden book to talk about today is another coffee-table wonder--The Writer's Garden: How Gardens Inspired Our Best-Loved Authors by Jackie Bennett and photography by Richard Hanson. (2014--UK).

Writers and gardens. Artists and gardens. What is it about gardens that have inspired so much creativity and so supported the life force in each of us? That is my quest--to find out.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Just a Few Summer Reading Plans

I'll just start a list:
I'd like to finish reading John le Carre's memoir The Pigeon Tunnel, listening to it with a hard copy at my elbow. Essential, the hard copy.

Then I'd soon like to read his novel A Small Town in Germany, which I believe is his favorite, at least it seems to have been at the time he wrote his memoir. It involves the collision of the ex-Nazi regime left-over characters and the 1960s younger people coming into power. I have so very much more I want to say about le Carre, so stay tuned over the next couple of months.

I will read another P.D. James novel, which many consider her ultimate best, Devices and Desire. This was published in 1989, immediately before her "departure novel," Children of Men, which I've read and which was extraordinarily original and

I'm terribly unsure about the future of my Classics Club List right now. I read the list last week and not one of them seemed appealing. Not even one! That shocked me. Guess some mood elevation is in order. Coctails? Comedy? Trump does not help. To pull out of the Paris Climate Accord. How could anyone be cheerful, really? I want to know.