Monday, December 16, 2013

Russian Literature 2014

I just found a challenge (here) that may push me to finish a personal project I've been putting off for years now.  One of the first blog events I ever happened upon was a challenge to read Russian literature.  Because I am often overly optimistic but always methodical, I promptly went to the library and checked out and read several book on Russian history, made a list in chronological order of what I felt I should read, and started reading. 

I started with The Complete Prose Tales of Pushkin, some of which I enjoyed and some of which underwhelmed me.  I moved on to The Collected Tales of Gogol, with which I had the same experience and attempted but couldn't get into Dead Souls.   I read and enjoyed A Hero for Our Time by Lermontov but got frustrated at this point feeling like I was stuck in Russian Literature land to the exclusion of everything else.  So I quit.  Since then I have read Lolita, which I unexpectedly loved, Crime and Punishment, which I liked but didn't love, and Anna Karenina, which I absolutely loved and want to re-read.  I've also read a few mysteries by Boris Akunin and a couple of poems by Anna Akhmatova.   I still have on my shelf to read:  Fathers and Sons by Turgenev, First Love by Turgenev,  The Brothers K, War and Peace, Dr Zhivago, and a book entitled Natasha's Dance by Orlando Figes, which is a history of Russian culture.   I also want to read more of Anna Akhmatova's poetry, Oblomov by Goncharov, and the dystopic novel We by Zamyatin. 

With all these grandiose desires reigned in now by experience, I am going to sign up for the 2014 Russian Literature Challenge, Level One.  If I read more than three, Hallelujah,  and if I read only one, Amen. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Experimental Reading

" dream of rediscovering a condition of natural reading, innocent, primitive..." Calvino

Why do we read?  For the stories?  The characters?  The universal truths?  To be entertained?  To escape?  To learn?  To forget?   I don't know that I can verbalize why I read so much.  All of these reasons and more, and the reasons seem to change daily and to be different with the different books I read.    Sometimes I want to escape and sometimes just to be entertained.  Sometimes I want to forget, and sometimes I want to learn and to remember.  I suppose that's why reading works so well for me, because it's always different and always challenges me in different ways.

It's taken me several weeks to know what to say about Italo Calvino's novel, If on a winter's night a traveler, and even now I'm not sure I know exactly what I want to say.   It's not so much that I found it difficult to read, once I realized what was going on and learned to suspend any expectations I might have about the book.  It certainly is not a book to read for plot or character development.  It seems to be a study in genres and also a study about readers and reading.    Did I enjoy it?  Sometimes.  But also sometimes I was bored and irritated with it.  Did I learn from it?  Maybe, if only by being exposed to that type of experimental fiction.  It seems to be a sort-of precursor to David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, which I thoroughly enjoyed.  Reading If on a winter's night a traveler was more akin to working a jigsaw puzzle than to enjoying a good read, but I'm glad to have read it, and I certainly enjoyed reading it along with other people and following their tweets about it.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Reading Without Writing

Gratuitous Book Pile Photo
"It is likely I will die next to a pile of things I was meaning to read."  Lemony Snicket

Lately I've been on a reading tear, much to the detriment of this blog.  Since last I blogged, I've read three novels:  If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino, The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman, and Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner. 

I read the Calvino novel as an online read-a-long in November, and while I enjoyed it and am glad I attempted it with support, I am still trying to sort out my thoughts in order to write a post.  It is a challenging, complicated book.

For a change of pace, concurrent with reading Calvino, I read The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman, an entertaining, easy read.  I enjoyed the story and found the theme of the lengths to which morally strong people will go given a certain set of circumstances to be fascinating.

My most recent read, Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner was lovely.  This short novel (only 183 pages) made a huge impression on me, after starting off VERY slowly.  Around page 90, I was thinking I might abandon it. I am so glad I didn't.  Within the next ten pages, the book became and continued to be a novel I loved.  I can understand why this kind of novel is not for everyone.  It's very introspective, and almost nothing happens, but I loved the voice of Edith, the main character, and I loved the way she learns to accept herself as is throughout the course of the novel.  As a woman who grew up in a very conventional South, I can relate completely to her struggle.

Time to choose my next conquest!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Shut the Front Door

photo by Anna Reavis

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." Thoreau

This morning I heard a woodpecker, which, as I was in the woods at the time, should come as no surprise. What was surprising was that I had been in the woods for 30 minutes with him pecking at the periphery of my hearing before I shut up long enough to truly hear him. And by shut up, I don't mean I stopped talking. I was alone with only my dog, and except for saying, "stop, stay, slow down" to her, I hadn't spoken.   What wasn't quiet was my mind. It was churning, contemplating things done and not done and things yet to do: analyzing, understanding, interpreting, predicting all kinds of things. I was thinking about the books I'm reading, the people I'm around in my life, where a bathroom might be, what I could eat, and yes, beer.  It took me 30 minutes alone in the woods to shut myself up enough to hear that lovely woodpecker.

Most of our lives, including our reading lives, are like this. Overwhelmed with the urge to comprehend, analyze, and thus control, our environments, including what we read, we often forget how to be quiet, let go, and just let things and people be who and what they are and listen for the beauty surrounding us, quietly insistent, in the background of our everyday lives.  The  next time you come across a work of art, a poem, or a book that you just "don't get,"  be quiet, and  let it be. And what it will be is beautiful.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Mid-Point of Calvino Read

"...putting behind you pages lacerated by intellectual analyses, you dream of rediscovering a condition of natural reading, innocent, primitive..."

I'm participating in a group read of If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino, in which we were to have half the book read by 11/15.  I'm not quite to the end of the first five/ten chapters, but I'm only lacking a couple of pages. 

This is an oddity of a novel.  It's the kind of experimental fiction (somewhat similar to Cloud Atlas) which would have completely intimidated me as a younger person.  Now I'm old, and I tend to think,  "If other people can read this, so can I."  Wonder if that means I can get through Ulysses yet?  Hmm...bettah not.

So, Calvino.  This book reminds me of a boyfriend.  You know, fantastic for brief periods but boring and annoying for the most part.  Although, in fairness to the book, I'd say the ratio of good to hum drum is closer to 50/50.  I do feel like Calvino purposefully manipulates his reader:  giving slack in the line, then jerking the hook and reeling you back in.  The book isn't a struggle to read, and I do find myself getting caught up in each little story, just as it ends, like the reader narrator.  I'm looking forward to seeing where this one goes.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Stranger Than Fiction

photo by amy

"Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known."  Carl Sagan

As recently as a couple years ago, I almost never read nonfiction.  I don't know exactly why, but I suspect it relates to my use of reading as a means of escape.  Over the last few years, however, I've discovered that nonfiction is often precisely what I need.  With that in mind, and following this month's theme of Nonfiction November, here are some of the nonfiction books I've read over the last couple years that I would recommend. 

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond:   An engaging book providing Diamond's hypothesis for why Western Civilization evolved as it did.  This book is so full of interesting facts that I spent almost as much time making notes as I did reading.  I loved the PBS series from this book.  I've bought Collapse by Diamond to read but haven't yet gotten to it.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion:  A memoir of the year directly following the sudden deaths of her husband and concurrent serious illness (and later death) of her daughter.  So much of what Didion describes resonates with me because of my experience of my brother's sudden death in an auto accident when he was 16 and I was 21.  I also read her later memoir Blue Nights.

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow:  An interesting, approachable, understandable description of different theories about the origin and nature of the universe and humanity's differing historical views of it.  I would assume this book might be too basic for most scientists but is a good overview for the rest of us. 

Wild and Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed:  While both of these books are quite different, I loved the author's voice and points of view in both.  Wild is a memoir of the author's ill-planned hike on the Pacific Coast Trail in the wake of her mother's death and her own divorce.  Dear Sugar is a collection of question and answer advice columns on pretty much everything involved in being human.

The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean:  My most recently finished nonfiction work is an explanation and history of genetics.  While some of the book was a little dry, for the most part, I loved it.  Lots of interesting tidbits of info on the underlying stuff of life on this planet.  My favorite part was on epigenetics. I have Kean's Disappearing Spoon, which explores chemistry, to read soon.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris:  I listen to all of Sedaris's books on audio, narrated by him on my iPhone on long car trips.  The vignettes move from the hilarious, to the disturbing, to occasionally ho-hum, but are very often emotionally moving.  As I have lived in North Carolina my entire life, I feel like I'm hearing stories from an eccentric neighbor when I listen to him.  My favorite of his collections has been Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

My current nonfiction read is Spillover:  Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen, which explores the history and reflects on the future of zoonotic diseases.  I'm enjoying this one a lot and have his earlier work, The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions to read soon.

Now that I've discovered the joy of nonfiction and the limitless, free education available to those who choose to pursue it, I try to keep a work of nonfiction underway concurrently with the novels I read.  I find these works a nice change of pace perfectly complementing my fiction reading.  Happy Nonfiction November!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Shadows in Real Life

Shadows on the Lake
photo by amy
"You remember, when Queen Dido offers Aeneas hospitality, she says:  Having known misery, I have learned to pity the miserable.  Our poor wood-carrier is like Queen Dido." (Euclide to Cecile in Willa Cather's Shadows on the Rock)

I'm going to start this post with an insight about myself I didn't like discovering and I think probably reflects poorly on our society at large.  Early on in Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather, a poor, poorly-tended child named Jacques says to the his friend Cecile:  "Sometimes sailors like children too."  And a little later, he begins to recount an experience he had with a priest.  Both of these happenings ended up being positive, helpful experiences for Jacques.  But before I knew what happened, I automatically assumed that both occurrences were going to involve some kind of abuse.  Why?  I've never been the victim of abuse.  I have no reason to make that kind of assumption.  All I can think is that as a society, we are so inundated with news about these kinds of abuses that it has become a go-to assumption for someone even as na├»ve as I am.  Is this a poor reflection on the world we inhabit or on the news to which we are constantly subjected?  I don't watch or read the news, but I still have these over-arching negative impressions so imprinted in my mind that these are the conclusions I reach with no evidence.  This makes me sad.

What makes me happy, though, is a novel like this one.  I love Willa Cather.  This is the fourth of her novels I have read.  I absolutely love her ability to transport me into the places and times of her novels. You don't read Cather for the plot; you read Cather for the perfect and perfectly beautiful descriptions of both the characters and the settings.  While not a lot happens in the novel, the plot does resolve nicely for someone like me who likes a happy ending.  I grew to love the characters:  Cecile Auclair, the twelve year old daughter of Euclide, Count de Frontenac's hand-chosen apothecary, who is also a lovely character;  the Count himself and old Bishop Laval, both of whom love and care for their people in understated, humble ways; sweet, damaged Blinker and little Jacques Gaux; Father Hector, the bishop to the wild ones, and Pierre Charron, one of the first true Canadians of European descent, who loves his land as few others do and makes a point of sharing that love with Cecile.

Since finishing Shadows on the Rock, I have been to the bookstore and to Amazon and to the library and acquired about 10,000 other books and have not been able to settle in to read ANY of them.  What to do, what to do?  Maybe another Cather?  We'll see.