Hanging out in Russia

Without faith in a Christ as god-man, and the life after death Christianity promises, Dostoevsky believed, humanity is doomed to squalid, cruel disorder.  No other intellectual system based on atheism, however well-functioning in practice, even in a sort of utopia where everyone is enthusiastic about wanting to help everyone else be happy and good, can possibly succeed; without the prospect of Heaven, and judgment, humankind inevitably breaks down to debasement.  DostoevskyHe saw this all around him in mid-19th century Russia, in the government, the rulers, the behavior and mores of the aristocracy,  dissolution of the family (as he perceived it), and the desire to turn away from Russian-ness and emulate the culture of Western Europe.

At the same time he seemed to feel that none of the disorder in Russia was ever going to  be reparable.  That the the peasants (recently freed serfs, after the 1860s) were always going to be a somehow incomprehensible other, even as they supposedly possessed the purest highest form the the Russian soul.

I’ve been delving into Dostoevsky for a few years now on and off, reading and then listening to audios of the major novels; I’ve gone from not being able to read him at all in my younger days, to finding him as absorbing and rereadable as Henry James or  Tolstoy.   I had to discover how to read him, and retune myself to the higher emotional pitch he demands — not even Tolstoy prepared me for the high hysteria of a Dostoyevsky character.  His people start out at 11.

But it was just this past couple of weeks that I read his big novel The Adolescent (or A Raw Youth as an earlier English translation calls it), which was his next to last — written between Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.  According to the introduction, it was not well received at the time of publication and tended to be overlooked since.

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There was a lot to it that made it a tough read — some flatness to characters, a ridiculously melodramatic plot turning on possession and purloining of a compromising letter.  (Does the word ‘purloin’ ever get used anymore except with the word ‘letter’ in the same sentence–and barely even then.) But from it I got what seems to be my clearest understanding yet of what Dostoevsky was on about, and in a way that connected more directly than before with my own moral preoccupations, uncertainties and dreads.

This post has been in draft form for well over a week, and I’ve kind of lost track of it, because I was working on a short story with my writers group–trying a form I’m very unaccustomed to attempting, and especially after a year when any creative impulses I might have had were buried against the onslaught of my elderly parents’ emergency.

I’m now stuck into George Steiner’s first book, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, An Essay in Contrast,51xvLF-3MwL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_ (the title always makes me think The Beatles or The Stones, why do we have to pick?), as well as an audio of The Double.

 

 

 

 

 

24631264.jpgAlso just finished Peter Pomerentsev’s nonfiction book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. which contains nothing that would contradict any of Dostoevsky’s points about Russia and humanity, each chapter setting out a story of frightening dangerous absurdity,  Pomerentsev’s parents emigrated from the Soviet Union to London, and he went back as an adult to work in television, wanting to make documentary films about the post-Soviet social upheavals.  Through interviews with various players, both Russians and foreigners who worked in Russia during those years, he shows us, from the point of view of suicidal models, crusading lawyers, shameless oligarchs, unsuspecting entrepreneurs, and brash social climbers, a perspective on the decades following the fall of the SU that’s fascinating in it’s horror and horrible in its fascination.

Once in a while I think about picking up a different sort of book and taking a break from dwelling on Russia, my obsession with it sometimes feeling like a half-open scab I keep picking picking picking.  There’s a weird pain-into-pleasure I experience as I read Russian literature or books about Russian life and history.  Nothing else feels as inviting to me now, anyway. It’s not that I need to “get to the bottom of it” but this immersion is filling some kind of need in me for the squalor, ugliness, human cruelty, occasionally leavened by a spiritual light that I myself don’t believe in, delivered in a beautiful and meaningful package of prose fiction.  The way everything in all these books not just goes up to 11, but seems to start there and go up into ever more shrill, sublime human places that seem otherwise invisible to fictive worlds of other languages and cultures, just keeps pulling me.  The other day I even listened to some Mussorgsky.

And rewatched the 2012 film version of Anna Karenina, which is now on Netflix, and which has always struck me as being a great adaptation, and a visual treasure with a well-chosen cast, look, and feel.

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Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Count Vronsky

I especially admire how the film is staged, literally, on a stage–and behind the stage, to illustrate how performative is the society from which Anna tries to rebel.


					

In Russia and Denmark

9780691176949_0The next plunge into the work of Joseph Conrad is getting put off a little while, as I’m immersed in things Russian, and a wonderful 19th century Danish classic.

First, the Russia Thing. The House ofGovernment, a Saga of the Russian Revolution, by Yuri Slezkine, has been my preoccupation for the last few weeks, on audio–after listening to all of it, I went back and just started listening again from the beginning.  (It’s read, wonderfully, by Stephen Rudnicki, who also narrates Notes From a Dead House, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which I’m also listening to).

I’m also immersed in audios of Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, and Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, by Anne Applebaum, whose other books about Russian history I enjoyed very much, and am also engaged with Dostoevsky’s The Adolescent, his second-to-last novel, which I’ve somehow overlooked until now (and according to the introduction, has been overlooked by a lot of Dostoevsky scholars.) That one I’m reading with my eyes, not my ears.

Back when I was in college, I took a course on Russian history, not because I was interested in it — I wasn’t, at the time — but because word amongst my fellow students was that one mustn’t miss the experience of a semester with Professor Peter Viereck, who was famous on campus for his eccentricity (his unstable genius?)*.

A few years later that I tried Tolstoy — who surprised me by being easy to read, sentence for sentence, and to understand, contrary to all expectations.  I went on a tear and read all the Tolstoy I could, including the novel Resurrection, which I probably couldn’t read again now even if you paid me.  I went on to Chekhov, and began an on-and-off again but ever-deepening fascination with Russia, in its capacity as Hot Mess and Hotbed of  Great Literature, a place where humans are more-than-human in their over-the-top fucked up emotionality and hysteria, where reasonableness and logic somehow don’t apply, where terrible terrible terrible things happen every moment.  Which led me, eventually, to want to know more about its history and society.  At last I was able to come, after quite a few frustrating failures, to Dostoevsky, who I’d found impossible to read during my earlier happy forays into Tolstoy, for reasons which are now the very ones that make me love his work maybe even more than Tolstoy’s — i.e., A WHOLE LOT — and which originally made me, after reading 100 pages of The Idiot, just want to slam all the characters’ heads together.  He was harder to learn to how to read; when I was younger I couldn’t settle down to his style, I missed his humor altogether, and I wasn’t able to let go of some misbelief at the overwrought emotions and behaviors of his characters.

So, back to The House of Government, a book of history that often reads like a novel, centered on the apartment building of the same name that housed many members of the Soviet government and was, at least when it went up in the 20s, the largest residential building in the world. (The view from my living room window as I write is of London Terrace (1931) which also claims to be the largest apartment building in the world, so that’s interesting. (Though unlike the House of Government in Moscow, London Terrace has never had its own theater, movie house, grocery store, internal surveillance apparatus on all tenants, 2 a.m. knocks on the door by secret police, et al.  It does have its own pool.) Slezkine uses the extensive diaries and letters of various residents, all government officials and their families, to bring to life not just their individual stories  — many of which end in hideous show trials and banishment to Siberia or execution, but the history of the Russian Revolution and the early years of the Soviet Union.  Among its many tangents and diversions, the book reveals everything from what the ideal Soviet vacation consisted of, to The Happy Soviet Childhood, to the to the importance of literature to the Bolsheviks, who while worshipping the classic writers of Russia’s past (Pushkin, Lermontov,  Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, et al) were never, in the 20th century, able to let contemporary writers and artists alone with their integrity.

I’m also listening to the audio of Anne Applebaum’s most recent book of Russian history, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.  I also have to hand a collection of Gogol’s tales and of Pushkin’s prose, which I hope to get to before I get distracted fromthis plunge into Russia by a sudden interest in something else.

Denmark comes in with a Penguin Classics edition of Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen, which I bought because somewhere recently I saw or heard a fervid recommendation of it as being a masterpiece.   It’s a coming of age story, a ‘the death of the heart, or at least of the fantastical imagination’ kind of thing, though my presumption that it’s going to end in heartbreak and disillusion is just a guess — but one based on having read a lot of books already.  I’m reading it slowly, because it’s dense and lyrical, pleasurable but not really the kind of thing that pushes me to start the next chapter right after the chapter I’ve finished.  (Unlike anything by Dostoevsky, whose books are difficult to put down.)

I subscribed to the TLS just before Christmas, and in order to justify this expenditure, am trying to read each issue pretty promptly.  It’s lighter generally than the London Review of Books — at least, having read one and a half issues, that’s my impression.  I’ve wished all my life to be a reader of the TLS but it’s very expensive.  It’s also very fun, though a drawback is that I have to fight the urge to want all the books they review; even if I reserve them at the library, I’d never be able to read them all.  And alas, NYPL only has one copy of Country House Libraries, and it doesn’t circulate.

*As a naive undergraduate in the pre-Google times, what I thought I knew about Viereck before taking the class was that he’d been shot down as a fighter pilot in WWII, was a POW, was consequently given to carrying random pieces of food around in his coat pockets, was a poet of renown, and was “not all there”. What I remember, or think I do, from class meetings was that they consisted of him talking the entire time and not taking questions, and that at the first class he put out a packet of Social T biscuits which he invited the students to partake of and which no one dared go near.  The topics covered were mostly about the 15-18th centuries, and the books were thick and intense.  When I came to sit the final exam, on which depended the entire grade for the course, I couldn’t answer most of the set questions, and just filled my blue book with everything I DID know, having spent the prior week frantically reading.  A year or so later, one of my friends who lived in another dorm saw him come for dinner with some students (we had in-dorm family style meals at the time and were encouraged, for “Gracious”, to invite our teachers), and afterwards go upstairs.  She was still up at 2 in the morning, painting some scenery in the dorm living room, when she saw him shambling down the stairs.  He always looked a bit like a scarecrow, or a bum, imperfectly shaven, in a large flapping overcoat. “Good night, young lady,” he said, and went on out the door.  Her conclusion, with which I concur, was that during after supper conversation with the students in someone’s room, he’d dozed off and they hadn’t had the heart to wake him.

Satisfying

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About halfway through, a different narrator takes over, and gives us a different perspective on Cassandra.  To say more than that it’s about 2 sisters, one of whom is about to marry at the family ranch, and other other of whom would vastly prefer she not marry, is almost saying too much about the story.  I recommend this book highly.  It thrilled me in every line, and definitely is one that I’ll want to reread soon.  (Perhaps my favorite kind of novel, ultimately, is a relatively short one that I can read twice and really sink into and grasp, than something longer but less unified and concentrated.)

Something that I liked in it very much, which comes at the very end, is an encounter Cassandra, back in Berkeley after her crisis which is the book’s crisis, has with a casual friend she runs into.  The friend, a poor painter, tells her that she sold her guitar to afford paint, and she took 3 buses that morning in order to reach the SF side of the Golden Gate Bridge.  “The only thing I think about these days is light and what it does to things.  Light on water is something to consider.” Afterwards, drinking coffee alone, Cassandra “thought a little about economics and aesthetics, moving from the very simple to the slightly more complex, and wondering how it would feel to have to pawn a guitar, and how it would be to walk around until it gets dark and somebody gets out of your studio and you can go back in and go to work.  The things that get in your way, the indignities you have to suffer before you’re free to do one simple, personal, necessary thing–like work.  If it has to be a quarter inch thick you hock the guitar, and when the supply runs out, hock something else, and no matter what you have to part with to do it you hang on to the hope of painting a good picture some day.  And in time, others.  That’s painters.  But for me it was pretty much the same thing.  I could never write any of this until I could tear up the pawn ticket on the ghost of my mother.  It’s a different order of hocking but it comes to the same thing.”

Someone commented on a recent post, talking about getting rid of physical books in favor of her large library of e-books.  I was back and forth on e-books for years — wanting to like the form, wanting to embrace all the conveniences of them.  My first big e-reading experience involved rereading War and Peace on a Kindle app. I also happily read books on my iPhone while traveling abroad — especially handy for eating alone in foreign dimly lit restaurants.  But ultimately I find that for me some of the very reading value of a book is inherent in its physicality; I just don’t rate it as much if I’m reading on a device.  It neither feels like mine, nor can I summon up any sense of accomplishment with an e-book.  I haven’t bought one in a long time, and don’t get them from the library.  I want either to be read to by a terrific performer (audiobooks have become huge for me), or read it myself off a paper page.

I’m listening now to Dr Zhivago, and also re listening to some of the opening of The House of Government by Yuri Slezkine, which was as enthralling to me as anything by Dostoevsky.  I’ve begun reading (not listening) to The Adolescent by Dostoevsky, and plan in the next days to finish some books that have lingering from 2017.

My one reading project, as mentioned before, is, let’s call it, MY SHELVES A-Z.  I began with Renata Adler and Dorothy Baker, and must now choose a book by a ‘C” author.  Criteria being, I own it, but haven’t read it yet.  Possibilities include: Joyce Cary, and Ivy Compton-Burnett.

 

A book of misapprehensions

Now I’ve finished Pitch Dark by Renata Adler, which turned out, of course, not to be what I’d taken it for, 40 pages in, when I wrote the previous post.  It’s narrator, Kate is going through a crisis in her life, a love affair that’s doing her no good, and misapprehensions cluster around this central crisis, which is itself a misapprehension — that she is loved by the man she loves, that that love is and ought to be the natural center and purpose of her life.

The misapprehensions take fascinating forms.  Conversations that shy off into two directions at once, each speaker completely missing the other’s point.  There are the visits to her rural house of a raccoon she takes to attempting, all against the usual, to trying to befriend — until she finds out it’s slowly succumbing to distemper.   And then there’s a sojourn in Ireland, a place to escape the broken love affair, to rest, maybe to write.  Kate is lent a big country house by an ambassador she’s met socially, told the Irish staff will be friendly and look after her.  But the staff are withholding and surly, and the house itself almost preternaturally unwelcoming, and Kate’s anxiety is spiraling; she grows paranoid, and decides to leave Ireland early.  Her night-time flight in a rental car through the Hibernian dark — dark in every sense to a young woman who is afraid she’s breaking the law, under surveillance, soon to be caught and punished — is a tour-de-force of nightmare in which she understands nothing of what’s happening, and ascribes purposes and motivations to everything that are all derived solely from her misapprehensions.

I got used to the indirect style of the narrative; it’s imitative of Kate’s darting thought, the kaleidoscope of her intellect, and its perceptions, memories.  Sometimes she’s addressing her absent lover, challenging him, challenging their relationship; at others she’s just telling, moment by moment, what’s happening to her, and what memories and associations her (mis)apprehensions evoke.

Adler has a lot to say about isolation, loneliness, alienation, which are, alas, pet topics of mine.  This passage, pp124-5 of the NYRB edition, are well felt:

… it would be part of what I know, part of what I have to tell, that I understand something, not everything, but something, of what it is to be alone.  In this way. And that there must be others who are and have always been alone. In this way.

Those for whom there was, first dimly, then more bright, then dimly again, a possibility.  Which, though dimly, perhaps still exists, but which they know, have somehow always known, would never come to anything.  They were never, how can I put this, going to be a part of life.  It is as though, going through a landscape, through the seasons, in the same general direction as everybody else, they never quite made it to the road.  Through the years, humanity, like a tide of refugees or pilgrims, shoeless and in rags, or in Mercedes, station wagons, running shoes, were traveling on, joined by others, falling by the way.  And we, joined though we may be, briefly, by other strays, or by road travelers on their little detours, nonetheless never quite joined the continuing procession, of life and birth, never quite found or made it to the road.

So, I’ve embarked on my whimsical project of reading through the letters of the alphabet, two a month, of unread books from my own shelves.  Next up, B is for Isabel Bolton and New York Mosaic, a Virago Modern Classic that’s I must’ve had for at least the last 15 years.  (I had to use a stepladder, because the Viragos, in alphabetical order, start up by the ceiling.)

Other titles on deck that I expect to at least start in the next week:

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Late august reading

 

This summer (I’m writing this in mid-August), my reading took an expected turn when I discovered a podcast that might as well have been made to order for my interests: Backlisted, which is about old books.  I don’t recall what put me on to it, but looking over their list of old episodes, I saw many writers I already liked, and sensed that whatever these folks picked out to discuss would be of interest to me one way or the other. Each episode was so full of enticing descriptions of books that even though I already had a to-read pile that was sufficient for summer, I wanted to read NOW.

The podcast put me on to “All the Devils Are Here” by David Seabrook, a Smiths-back-catalogue of a read that I’d never have discovered for myself.

A cock-eyed ramble among the seaside towns of Kent, taking in the weird, the violent, the homosexual, the  gossipy, the scandalous, the atmospheric,the  readerly and literary,  the murderous, the psychologically-twisted, imporverished, the fascistic, mysterious, pathetic, minor celebrity adjacent, in a mélange of deep inquiries and rambling anecdote given out by the kind of slightly spooky great talker whom you both want to listen to forever and back away from slowly.   I read the book again a day or two after finishing it, and then lent it to a friend.

Also read “Darkness Falls From the Air” by Nigel Balchin, a world war two story of London in the blitz, which again, I’d never have heard of, and which was compared, on the podcast, to Greene’s “The End of the Affair” much to the detriment of the latter (a book I’ve loved a time or two.)  This one is about a government official in London who’s allowing his beloved wife to have an affair with a literary twep because it’s the war and who is he to preclude her from having a life while they wait for the big bombing to begin, except that of course while he’s being very polite and repressed and civilized about it, he hates it.  It’s mostly dialogue of the kind that you long to hear coming from the black and white mouths of Bacall and Bogart, though they wouldn’t really do those clipped upperish English 1930s voices.  I imagined them though, with maybe Leslie Howard as the squirrely lover. A perfect downer of a book, which I mean in the sense that it’s melancholy, the inevitability of its surprises, and its ending, worked completely, a perfect unit of hope and despair.

With no prompt from this podcast, but because of a Meet-up reading group I really wanted to get off my butt and attend (that is, the small part of my psyche that wants to get off and usually is squashed by the larger part that wants to stay recumbent), I read The Alexandria Quartet of Lawrence Durrell.  I owned thse books, and had tried, off and on since the 1980s, to read “Justine“, always falling out in the first 30 pages with a sense that the characters and narration and apparent emotional situation of the story were overwhelmingly pretentious.  This time, with the idea that I’d go meet other people and hear what they thought of it, I persisted, and pretty much a page or so after my old falling-off point, I was gripped, and realized that in fact this book was just the kind I like best, set in a strange location, slightly overwrought, vivid, difficult to track, and soaked in all five senses.  And then as I read the rest of the quartet I was delighted to find it was one of those works that delves into point of view, into how inaccurate are our perceptions of one another, how unknowable everything is.  As the subsequent books reveal the apparent ‘reality’ that’s concealed from the narrator of “Justine”, worlds open up.  And ultimately the overwroughtness of it all was just the kind of overwroughtness that I eat up with a spoon.

What I’m reading right now: “The Year of Reading Dangerously” by Andy Miller, which makes me want to shout: “Comrade!”  (I tweeted the author my compliments), “Maiden Voyage” by Denton Welch, and “Hotel Du Lac” by Anita Brookner.

Finding exciting books and a revival of my reading intensity is this year’s one bright spot, in the midst of freelance longueurs, the collapse of my aged parents’ independence, and our appalling political dilemmas.  A cliche to say reading is a life-line, but for me it’s literally true; I don’t know if I’d have made it out of my childhood much less this far, without books.  (I may write more about why this is, but not yet.)

Finally, I’m new to the book-and-reader-blogging world, and frankly don’t know where to begin there either.  I suppose I’ll find like-minded bloggers (and readers)  bit by bit.  Meanwhile, comments welcome.

 

Considering …

Not happy with the tone and voice of this — nor the title, which I keep shifting around.  I’m working on making all this more exciting for my (theoretical for now) readers.  I want to share my enthusiasm for the books I read, and these days I’ve (mostly) turned my back on new fiction in favor of novels whose pub date begins with 19–, and which have either been lining my home shelves for years, or brought to my attention by other bookish people.

That said, I’m currently reading two recently novels, The Ninth Hour by Alice McDermott, and All We Shall Know by Donal Ryan.  Ha.

Denton Welch was on my radar for some years; I owned a copy of “In Youth Is Pleasure”  because I’d heard John Waters praise it on a Fresh Air interview, but hadn’t read it. The episode of the Backlisted Podcast that discussed Welch and his first book “Maiden Voyage” piqued my interest. It tells, in memoir form — though some of it seems heavily fictionalized to me — about how Denton ran away from his English boarding school at 16, spending some days living rough until his resources run out, and was eventually sent off to join his father, a businessman in China, at the time (1930s) when the British empire was still rampant. The Pekin and Shanghai that Denton experiences are colonized places where the English live as arrogant sitters-upon, the Chinese servants are all called Boy, and Westerners who like “pretty things” are buying up antiques and objets d’art at a furious pace to ship them back to England.

The charm of the book is in its teenage narrator’s presentation of his emotions and judgments of other people as he moves through a series of small or momentous human situations — dinner parties, a boating accident, a collecting trip in the provinces, a boxing lesson, evening encounters with English soldiers based nearby, the misunderstandings ensuing between Chinese servants and the expats they serve. He’s frequently funny in the subtle, dry English way, not afraid to make the reader aware of his own ridiculousness, and the word portraits of the people he encounters are succinct, deft, and often amusingly nasty.  (I wouldn’t want to know he’d describe me; I can surmise.)  The narrator is a young gay man, but his gayness isn’t explicit, it’s there in his impressions, interests and judgments, as something latent; either not yet grasped or suppressed in the writing.

Just now finished reading “Hotel du Lac” by Anita Brookner.  Read it years ago when it was new, and I was very young, and had forgotten everything about it.  Now I find it’s a beautiful tight little novel of the kind I especially like–a small-scale cast of characters, a deep dive into an inner life.  I squirmed a lot, reading it, as the dilemma the novel turns on is the problem of being a middle-aged unattached woman, a position Brookner presents as essentially impossible — whether this was her own true opinion or not, it’s the worldview of the book, at least most of the way through.  It could almost be titled “How Should A Woman Be?”, and most of the possibilities illustrated by the characters are in way or another, ghastly.  As the noose of the plot tightens, one’s throat tightens too; is there no way out of this pitiless paradigm of needing a man in order to fit in, to be treated fully as a person?

*

As I write this, it’s early autumn in New York City, where unlike vast swathes are the country experienced quasi-apocalyptic weather, we’ve been having a long run of perfect late-summer days.  I’m sitting on my balcony looking out across the tops of a lot maple trees whose green leaves are losing their vibrancy, some already browning at the edges, beneath a sketchy sky of cloud wisps that don’t seem to want to come together into anything properly fluffy.   From here I can see four rooftop wooden water barrels, three American flags flying fairly briskly, the top of the Freedom Tower, and the facade of London Terrace which always makes me feel as if two elegant ocean liners are pulled up at a pier.

Changes of season always make me pensive.  This year has been unusual.  I’m an only child, and relations with my parents have, over the course of the years, weighed a lot heavier in the unpleasant/fraught side of the scales.  In spring they reached the point of no return; mom had a hospitalization, after which we recognized that dad’s dementia was such that they couldn’t go on living independently in their apartment on Long Island.  My main occupation from April through the summer was helping them hire the right consultants in order to make all the things happen — and work on getting dad into assisted living, moving mom from the suburbs into their city pied-a-terre, now her permanent home, selling the suburban apartment, and more more more.  All emotional, detail-exacting, slow and frustrating and then fast and stressful.  Now mid-way through September, dad’s gone from assisted living to a nursing home; his decline over the summer astonished everyone who saw him.  It’s been my focus to support my mother through all this traumatic change; we’ve always been prickly with each other, and haven’t had so much proximity since I was in elementary school; even with the best will I find myself getting into tangles with her that I completely didn’t intend.  In the midst of all this upheaval I’ve been reading very intensely.  That’s to say, I’m always reading, but these last few months the role of books in my life became a kind of project of applying balm, of having a place to retreat to, that feels different than ever before.  Reading has helped situate me in taking this level of involvement with my difficult parents; and made me feel less alone, through being able to see the multifariousness of human experience in every novel or nonfiction book I visit.