From my own shelves: A & B, + more Russia

My project to read books I already own, starting with A authors and ending in a year with Z, is going well so far.  There was Renata Adler’s Pitch Dark, and Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra At the Wedding.

Instead of moving right away to C, I chose another A to complete in January, one of the oldest of the volumes in my collection (alas not a completist one) of Virago Modern Classics, The Orchid House by Phyllis Shand Allfrey (1953).

9780860682424-us-300Set on the Caribbean island of Dominica in the 1920s-30s, it’s the story of a white colonial family fallen into decadence, told, mostly, from the point of view of their black servant Lally, a loyal, devoted retainer of the kind who from today’s perspective, comes across as a bit sickening, a bit incredible.  The story centers on the family’s three daughters, and the choices they make as young adults, inevitably leaving the island and then just as inevitably, returning.

The decadence is best represented by the men of the story, who, unlike Lally and the three daughters she worships, Stella, Joan and Nathalie, are not characters so much as symptoms.  The father, traumatized by his WWI experience, is a drug-addicted recluse; Andrew, the cousin whom each girl grew up loving and wanting, has succumbed to TB and a the shadow-life of living in sin with a woman of color (who is also, of course, a cousin–as in a story of the American south, the island is populated by offspring, both white and black, of certain white men whose ancestors were the original colonizers.

The whole thing has a powerful aroma of nostalgia, as the characters struggle between the old natural beauty  of the island, which is woven into the very fiber of their privilege, and the outcomes of each daughter’s rushing out to meet modernity and the larger world, and wanting to bring something of that back to the old home place, to try to cure it, or use it as an escape.  Lally’s expectations for the return of these little girls she nursed and brought up are immense; she knows them but in many ways she doesn’t understand their adult selves, and her hopes for what they’ll do are lit with a romantic glow that the sisters themselves can no longer really obtain.

As if to show that the past can’t be recaptured, the girls’ returns to Dominica are staggered; first comes Stella, the eldest, with her little son; she’s made a foolish marriage and is now fleeing a hardscrabble New England farm life with a man she doesn’t really know.  When Joan arrives, Stella leaves, and Lally turns her hopes to her, even as she dreads seeing her involve herself in local politics, agitating for the impoverished black islanders and bringing on the ire of the church and the white establishment.  Nathalie, the youngest, a rich widow who seems to live for partying and every frivolity — but without whose financial support the family home would collapse entirely — it’s she who can summon the realism, and the resources, to force activity out her family’s indolence.

Shand Allfrey is telling a version of her own life story — she, like Jean Rhys, whom she knew slightly, grew up on Domenica; unlike Rhys she never really left it.  (Rhys was supposed to write a forward to the reissue of the book in 1979, but died before she could do so  Like the middle daughter in her story, Joan, Shand Allfrey married in England, involved herself in left-wing politics, and ultimately returned to live in Dominica and work there for social reform.  This delightful book was her only novel.

The B in the title to this post is represented by Grand Hotel, by Vicki Baum, a reissue of the 1929 German novel by NYRB.  I’ve never seen the famous movie version, so am coming at it fresh, and not very far in; will write about it in a future post.

On audio, I just finished  Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine and have moved on to content.jpg The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars51Ib21mQT4L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgwhich is adding context to the audio of Dostoyevsky’s Notes From a Dead House, which I’ve also got going, as part of my ongoing All Things Russian reading project.   This one goes into great detail about the Decembrists, bringing me a vague sense of what that was to a much sharper understanding of who these early Russian political rebels were and what their punishment and the afterlife of their cause entailed.  The book also explains how Siberia came to be a scene of penal banishment in the first place, another of those things you think you know about until you realize you really don’t. The one drawback to listening to these books as opposed to reading them, is that the names just go by me in a whoosh, whereas on the page I’d sound them out and remember them better.

MV5BNTljNDI1ZWMtMDE1ZS00Y2QyLWE1ZWEtMjk4MGE3N2Y3ZDcxXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMDMxMjQwMw@@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,782,1000_AL_.jpgTCM showed the 1958 movie version of The Brothers Karamazov the other evening, which turned out to be a more credible adaptation than I thought when I sat down

MV5BM2EyMzRlZTgtNDdmZS00MDdjLTk3MjItMzdjZjQyYWI5YjI5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNjY0NzAxOTk@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1328,1000_AL_.jpgto watch it; a lot left out, of course, but what was there really kept my eye and interest, and the whole thing looked right — the cast, costumes, sets, etc.  Though I had to laugh at William Shatner as Alyosha, the youngest brother who wants to go into a monastery.  (He was sure pretty, though.)

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

2018-01-05 12-12-01 -0500

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.

 

2017 in books, an addendum, with some feels too, and tidying

Here I’ll put what I forgot to put in the original post.

After the intense detailsdetailsdetails of helping my parents get rid of stuff and then overseeing their professional packers and movers and unpackers, I found that instead of wanting to subside afterwards, I was fired up in a pointed way and needed to start fooling with my own possessions.  The next thing I knew, I was doing a book purge of own, even though just recently I’d felt, after the prior purge, that my library was really fine as it was.  A friend who lives in my building, on hearing that it was my deluded wish to alphabetize all my books (~1950), volunteered to help me, despite herself being weighed down with familial and professional obligations.  Together we pulled down all my books, she egged me on to get rid of things I’d never considered giving up before (“Do you need the complete works of Trollope anymore, or can you get by with the half dozen ones you tend to reread?”), and she, younger and spryer than I, did most of the actual sorting by letter and schlepping of books between the living room and the bedroom.  (Why is living room two words and bedroom one word?)

So not only did I attain separation of fiction and nonfiction, and alphabetization, but I actually had some room left over.  It won’t last, because even when I think I’m being prudent about buying books, somehow at least 5 new books find their way in here every 3 or 4 weeks, between liking a long walk to end up at a bookshop, and the ease of, after hearing about some interesting book, 1-clicking it on Amazon.  (And yet I also use the public library A LOT, and some time should post about what makes me need to buy a book as opposed to being content to borrow it, read it, and return it.)

Getting to handle all my books, to look at the covers of volumes that had long been visible only by their spines, made me feel wonderful, like Donald Duck’s rich uncle jumping around in his gold heaps.2018-01-01 17-22-54 -0500.jpg

The picture above shows the ‘recent acquisitions but not actually all of them’ assembly which sits next to my favorite spot on the sofa.  Many of these were bought at the suggestion of the Backlisted podcast, and some just because they looked interesting at the moment.  Conrad is on top because I’m going to read those next-ish.   The function of this not-a-pile-but-a-row is not so much that I’ll actually read these any time soon, but that they were of recent pique to my interest and came into the apartment in the last few months.  I like to feast my eyes on them.

The fervor that led to the book organization orgy then led me on, in the weeks after my father’s death, to do the same to my entire apartment.  I’m fortunate to have a decent sized 1-bedroom, and while I have a lot of stuff, it was all stored more or less adequately, but the urge was on me like gangbusters to address every single little focal point of clutter, then every overstuffed drawer, closet rod, linen closet shelf, and with the help of a lovely professional organizer, my tip of a kitchen, which took two full days to sort out and which now looks like the kitchen of my actual self, ie, someone who mostly eats take-out and doesn’t need all that kitchen stuff piled up on all those visual surfaces.

Then I decided that my vague dreamy dreams about wanting to freshen the paint went from vague to Must Get Rooms Painted This Moment.  Now my kitchen is Stop Light Green, and my bedroom, which used to be Eggshell with a very dirty brown wall to wall carpet, is now Ryan Red, with a bare wooden floor.

And of course, in the midst of all of this, I was listening obsessively to things like Slate’s Trumpcast and Political Gabfest and Pod Save America and the BBC News and seemingly every other second-by-second dire reportage about the Decline And Fall Of Everything, which I just COULD. NOT. LEAVE. ALONE.

All this bustle took up several weeks in October, November, December, and soothed me, because being a Domestic Goddess seemed to counteract the fact that I didn’t seem to be mourning in quite the right way, ie, I wasn’t sorry, and I was frequently irritable with my mother, and I was eating compulsively at a rate that I haven’t done in years.  I kept thinking, ‘what will I do with myself when I run out of things to tidy*? Because I’m certainly not going to suddenly finish my novel or anything like that.’

In fact, I was fortunate, at that moment, after silence on that front since the end of March, to get called for a gig.  The gig ended up being put off for a few days, in which I scrambled the last of my home tasks and nagged the painter to finish the last of the last of the kitchen, and suddenly I was a Freelance American again.  At least for the moment.

Now if I could just somehow be overtaken in 2018 by a similar fervour and clearness around creative writing, THAT would be something.  Is it too much to think I’ll never see the inside of The Zone again?  Well, probably yes, because I’m Eeyore.

*Tidy is one of my favorite words, because it feels so old fashioned and kind of dumb.  Like dainty, another favorite, and frock for dress.  A perfect sentence, when I’m some moods, would be, “I could tidy up that dainty frock.”

2017 in books

This year I read 80 books, which is up from 60 in 2016, and down from 92 the year before that.  I recall 2015 as a year when I had a lot of time on my hands.

Of these, 13 were rereads.  Twenty-two of the 80 were nonfiction — essays or history.  Twenty-seven were audiobooks.

I’m having a hell of a time writing this post.  I’ve produced a number of turgid, rather pompous paragraphs, as if I for an annual report, but I guess I’ll spare you those — you, my random reader, if you exist.

This was the year my parents lost their ability to live independently, and my father died in the fall.  For months before that, I spent a good deal of my time and most of my emotional energy on difficult tasks in their service.  I wasn’t working a good deal of the time — it a slow year for freelancing — and reading, as well as watching TV and listening to too many political podcasts — was chief escape, distraction, occupation, excuse for not doing something else.  Creative writing, always a struggle and source of constant conflict, just went completely by the bye.

The list of books I devoured is here presented in 3 screenshots.

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 12.01.01 PM.pngIt conceals the stretches over the summer when I couldn’t settle down to any particular book, and sometimes felt like I’d never read again.  I ambled dutifully through the magazines that come in — The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, The London Review of Books, New York.  I also subscribed to Granta and, just now, Brick, as well as, just because I’ve always wanted to even though it costs a fortune, The Times Literary Supplement.  I suppose if I’m not constantly surrounded by clamoring unread publications, life just isn’t life.

Some of the reading choices this year were for a class at The Center For Fiction with Anne Fernald, a terrific teacher, on the novels of the Harlem Renaissance — Plum Bun by Jessie Fausset, Home to Harlem by Claude McKay, Not Without Laughter by Langston Hughes, the novels of Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.  Loved reading them, though felt always a little weird discussing them with a group composed only of other bespectacled white constant reader types.

A bunch of other titles were suggested by the podcasted Backlisted, where witty London book people talk about books from years gone by — this led me to some novels of Anita Brookner, a couple of existential WWII-era thrillers, a re-awareness of Jane Gardam, and also notably the charming bookish memoir of one of the podcast’s hosts, Andy Miller, The Year of Reading Dangerously: How 50 Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved my Life.  But maybe the greatest find Backlisted pointed me to is All The Devils Are Here by David Seabrook, a sui-generis memoir-essay collection, centering on the seaside towns in the English country of Kent and the very weird and disquieting if not actually occult things that have happened there in the 19th and 20th century — violent things, queer things, political things, literary things.  Reading it was like — in the best possible way — listening obsessively to The Smiths, very English, wry, dark, hilarious in a morbid way, and full of details about people and places that I’d never have known I’d be interested in without having come across the book.Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 12.01.23 PM.png

This was also the year that, after various dud tries in decades past, I read The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell, which came along just when I needed most to be utterly taken up, and swept me duly away.

Screen Shot 2018-01-01 at 12.01.41 PM.png

Besides Seabrook and Durrell, the other highlights were The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy, which led to some absorbing discussion with a bookish friend and even the purchase of a biography of Percy, which of course I got distracted from 20 pages in, and books touching on Russia, one of my on-and-off fascinations which is currently ON.  Those are #31, 73, and 80, along with revisitings of Dostoyevsky, the audiobooks of whom I’ve been using as going-to-sleep companions throughout the year.  #80 in particular, a long intense, as it says on the tin saga, centered on the Bolsheviks who lived in a specially-constructed apartment building in Moscow called The House of Government, was perfectly embodied as an audiobook that kept me riveted for the last couple of weeks, and which, having finished, I went back to listening to again from the beginning.  Among much other information, this book has cleared up for me a long-held question I had about why the Soviets didn’t ban Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, which to my mind, has always seemed perverse.  Turns out, according to Slezkine’s thesis, it was perverse of the Bolsheviks to encourage their children to read those and other “treasures of world literature” and helps explain, in a small part, anyway, why Bolshevism didn’t survive into a 2nd generation.

Projections for what I want to read this year: there will probably be more Joseph Conrad this winter.  I also want to stick to my idea of rediscovering my own shelves by choosing unread books, 2 a month (roughly), in alphabetical order.  I began in December with Pitch Dark by Renata Adler and now am reading Cassandra At the Wedding by Dorothy Baker.  On my new(ish) acquisition pile I see titles by Brigid Brophy, Daphne Du Maurier, Patrick Hamilton, but that doesn’t mean other titles won’t oversweep them and come in first.

Finally, though I’d sort of promised myself a year ago that I wasn’t going to bother anymore with current books — that there were no current books that would give me more pleasure than old ones — I did turn out to read quite a few books.  Some, like the latest Elizabeth Strout and Jennifer Egan, I’d have read anyway.  The Francis Spufford was by way of Backlisted, and Brit Bennett’s Mothers just seemed to be in the air somehow.   (I liked these while I was reading them, but they were ephemeral.) In general though, my willingness to take a flyer on unknown new novel(ist)s is at a lifetime low.