Looking Forward to June

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.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Down Time Weekend and Wieke Wang's Chemistry

It's been raining for 50 hours straight so far, but luckily it's been a steady light rain, which is soaking in to the ground. Thankful.
I'm not exactly sure how my reading weekend is shaping up at this moment on a Friday evening, but these are my clues:

I've been enjoying the extraordinarily spare writing style of Wieke Wang, whose debut novel Chemistry has been published this month. I have been drawn to this story of a young Chinese-American woman, who is convinced that the world of chemistry in the laboratory mandates her entire future. She struggles, then she fails abysmally and irrevocably, and--she moves on.

And  halfway through the book I'm fascinated to discover what she will do with her moving on. We've learned she is resilient, she is strong (though she's not convinced of that fact), and I just know (and I think the author wants you to know) that she will find her way, eventually, and with humor.

The prose is written totally in the most unusual sort of  present-tense and is undeniably awkward. But don't let that put you off.  I feel the main characters are like fish out of water with this verb tense, and I wonder if that is the author's intention. The verb tense is not comfortable, yet the novel is a quick read. The young woman narrator is  romantically involved with an All-American, red-headed, Pennsylvania-born only son of a perfect family--no conflicts, no problems--ha! Her family, on the other hand, is tortured, and she is the first-generation only child of Chinese-American parents who have struggled ceaselessly from their childhoods in China. Can her relationship be saved? And what will happen to their beloved goldendoodle if it is not?

So I'll be finishing this novel, and hopefully reading on in The Widow's House. I'm determined to finishing listening to Bruce Springsteen's awe-inspiring memoir Born to Run (while knitting). And I hope to continue John Le Carre's memoir The Pigeon Tunnel, which is so interesting, yet so deep and nuanced that I'm not sure I'm "catching" all he means me to catch.  Did you know that 85-year-old John Le Carre has a new George Smiley novel coming out this fall 2017?? If this memoir is any indication, his skills and mind are as sharp as ever.

Have a great weekend! I may well be posting before it is over.

Monday, May 22, 2017

May Jaunts and Carol Goodman's The Widow's House

Just a very brief post to say I'm still hanging in, despite the fact I haven't been reading a great deal or blogging as much as I'd very much like to do.

My plan is to have a very busy summer reading and blogging.  I've been really bogged down emotionally and it has been very hard to keep up. I don't understand really why this should be, but it must be part of the grieving process, and I hope that after my mom's memorial service, I'll truly begin anew. I guess I can say quite honestly that I can't wait.

I just had a wonderful visit from a friend who now lives in North Carolina. We hiked over 22 miles in four days, and lots of it on rough trails. I'll admit I'm exhausted, but it's a really good kind of tiredness. Beautiful, really cool spring weather, which means that the black flies were not a problem. Lucky us!

I am reading a gothic-style thriller set in upstate New York in the Hudson River Valley. Carol Goodman's The Widow's House has all the traits of gothic suspense, which makes it excellent fodder for my appetites. A married couple, in their mid-30s, moves to a gate-house kind of place on a Hudson River Valley estate. Jess, the husband, is working on his second novel and getting nowhere, really.  His wife, although she has considerable literary talents of her own, has always subsumed them in working to support her husband, doing editorial freelancing for New York City publishers. Then, just a bit at a time, she begins to boldly stretch her literary wings on this estate, no longer playing the self-abnegating helpmate to her husband. That's where I am right now. It is becoming clear that Jess cares only for the support his wife can provide, in the form of meals  and general  household support and literary cheerleader.. Naturally, there is a ghostly presence on the estate--just as one might expect. I'm  really enjoying it.  Carol Goodman  has written a number of gothicky novels set in upstate New York.  I read The Lake of the Dead Languages, which was set at a women's secondary school--private academy, and which was excellent.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Internet Lost! Back Now, and Audio Memoirs

Being without internet service for over a week was much more than Ken and I could tolerate without losing our patience. Fortunately we had satellite tv to keep us connected to the world.

It's twelve miles to the nearest café or pub providing internet service, and even these spots have multiple days they're not open each week, because it's the "off season." Our problem resulted from a brief thunder squall that moved through on May 1st. It was no big deal, really. Hard to fathom.

Thank goodness I had several audiobooks downloaded, and plenty of knitting to do. The weather has been abysmal. We've had snow, hail, downpours, steely rain, and the cold wet and rawness that penetrate all  clothing. The dog sticks her nose out the door and, supposedly intrepid retriever that she is, then looks at me as if to say, "Do we really have to go for a walk?"

As soon as we get a couple of warm days all the wildflowers will blossom and all the trees will leaf out, all at once. It will be a dizzying splendor, though truly I prefer a more gradual unfolding of spring.

I'm nearing the end of Born to Run, written and narrated by Bruce Springsteen, which has been a revelation, and I will hate to let it go. He lets the reader into his deepest soul, into the passions and demons that drive him, and I'm grateful for what he has shared. An amazing audio experience.

I'm now reading one book and listening to two other audiobooks. My auto audiobook is the memoir The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre, author of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and so many other novels of espionage. He, too, is the narrator of this memoir, and at 84 years of age, it is obvious that he is as sharper than any tack. His voice, and the nuanced reading of his memoir, is also extraordinary.  I highly recommend the audio performance--bravo!! Yet I find I wish I had a text copy to refer to, because at many points, he discusses complex events relating to the Cold War and his experience of it. I must admit that my listening skills are nowhere near the acuity of my reading skills. If I continue to listen to audiobooks, I think I'll develop keener listening, but right now I need a physical copy of The Pigeon Tunnel. Again, an absolutely extraordinary book! Springsteen and Le Carre are establishing a new standard for memoir.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

An Absurdly Long Interruption and Books

It may seem as though I've walked off the edge of the earth, but I am still in residence. I have been overwhelmed by home issues that have flared up and preparations for a major family reunion, which will take place following my mother's memorial service. It's hard for me to realize, but my brain has been so crammed with duties and errands that I've had nearly no space to reflect, to read, to be.

I have taken up knitting again, as a means to calm myself, and as I knit, I've taken to listening to audiobooks. Currently I'm listening to Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen's memoir, and it's a gem! Springsteen is the narrator, and I'm certain he wrote the book, though it's possible he had an editor help with structure. I can assure you there was no ghostwriter here!

Springsteen writes and narrates in the same passionate language as is present in the lyrics to his songs. His childhood is fascinating--as  the oldest grandchild, he lived with his grandparents until they were too old to cope, and only then did he move in with his parents, who lived a few blocks away. I'm less than halfway through, but his memoir also reveals the music scene of the early- to mid-1970s beautifully. I'm not yet beyond that era and am just now reading about the magic of the Born to Run album, an era that changed everything for Springsteen and his band who had labored so hard for years and years in the backwaters of New Jersey.

Have you ever wondered what life would be like living as a woman and a mother in a Hasidic Jewish community? This is the universe I discovered when I listened to Leah Lax's  Uncovered:How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home.

Hasids are ultra-orthodox or ultra-conservative, fundamentalist Jews. The largest community in the U.S. resides in Crown Heights in Brooklyn, New York. Other communities are scattered throughout a number of major U.S. cities, and although  the memoir did not discuss this, there are also communities in Europe. (Hasidic Judaism originated in eastern Europe early in the 20th century.) If you have ever read the best-selling classic novels The Chosen and The Promise by Chaim Potok, these novels portrayed conflicts in Hasidic life among young people raised in the culture, growing to maturity, then you are familiar with this way of life and religion.

Leah Lax was born into a Jewish family that did not practice the faith of their parents. They scarcely permitted themselves to ascribe to the views of  liberally-minded Reformed Jews. In the early 1970s Leah became extremely interested in conservative Judaism and sought out many opportunities to learn more about it and to practice her faith with other conservatively-minded Jews. Later, in college, she attended North Texas State University in Denton, which is where she really began to orient herself and commit herself to "God's Laws" as practiced by the Hasidic Community. At the age of 19, she agreed to an arranged marriage and began her life as a Hasidic wife, woman, and mother.

She portrays her life, her profound loneliness, the endless childbearing and housework, and, eventually, her realization as her seventh child grew up, that her soul and spirit were suffocating in this  life.