Currently Reading: Chapter II

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Steve Minkin
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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles (2016)

Marvelous! An exhilaratingly ambitious novel of post-revolutionary Russian life, history, cuisine, literature, music, architecture, etc., told through the finely detailed stories of The Count's life. Count Alexander Rostov was spared the fate of most of his class in the wake of the revolution because, in his youth, he had written a poem favored by the Bolsheviks; so he was told he could continue living in the Metropol, a grand hotel in central Moscow, but if he should ever set foot outside the hotel, "you will be shot."

Count Rostov is poised, cultured and possesses a joy-seeking inner compass that infuses the book with a sense of good-will and bonhomie in the face of some decidedly unpleasant history. His personal resources also serve him well in the little ups and downs of everyday life. Early in the book, he is told he must move from his grand suite on the second floor to a small room in the attic, and he consoles himself with the thought that, as a child, one of the things he loved best about traveling were the tiny cabins of boats and tight quarters of trains. When an irate barber's customer snips off half of his grand handlebar mustache, he coolly informs the barber "Clean shave today."

Over the decades in the hotel, the Count becomes the headwaiter of the more elegant of the hotel's two large restaurants, the father of a girl left by a dear friend who went to Siberia and was never heard from again, the lover of a well-connected movie star, the cultural mentor of a high-ranking party apparatchik, etc. And these are all fleshed out with rich physical and conceptual details, keenly envisioned and beautifully described. And the novel finishes up with an exciting, unpredictable, and satisfying denoument.

It's a traditional 'big novel' in conception, and one of the rare ones that work. I gobbled it up! There's a joy in living that suffuses the book. "The surest sign of wisdom is constant cheerfulness." Montaigne

Highly recommended.

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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TALES OF THE ALHAMBRA – Washington Irving (1837)

This was the book that sparked interest among the romantic artists of the period, which led to the funding of the preservation and restoration of the magnificent complex in Granada that marked the high-water mark of the Moors in Europe. The battles of the Castillians to expel the Moors took its toll on the buildings and artwork, and the later 'blow up everything as you leave' retreat of the defeated Napoleonic army had left much of the site in ruins. For centuries it was inhabited by squatters and impoverished locals. Irving, who was a diplomat as well as a writer, was charmed by the place, fluent in Arabic and Spanish, and took up an extended residency there.

I think I read Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (the headless horseman) as a pre-teen, and haven't read Irving since, so I had no idea what the book would be like. Much of the book – especially early on -- is devoted to physical descriptions of the Alhambra and the adjoining Generalife, and a overview of its turbulent history. But the heart of the book is the collection of stories attributed to various locations and people associated with the landmark. Early on, Irving acquires a 'guide' who has lived there his whole life, and whose father is said to know all the stories.

I've been amazed at how much I'm enjoying the tales, which have the exotic and somewhat stylized fantasy of the Arabian Nights. Some of the episodic tales read as though they were stitched together from several different folk stories to create a longer (historically and verbally) tale. Magic is a major player in all the stories, along with war, religion, family, and romance. Secret codes leading to hidden Muslim treasure stores abound, as do beautiful maidens raised in towers away from the eyes of any man. And we also find an enchanted lute, destroyed at the end of the story but whose string was passed from generation to generation and can now be found in a Cremona-made fiddle currently being used by Paganini; and another story featuring a judge who believed the end of Justice ought to be enrichment of the justice.

I bought this (picture above) 175th Commemorative Editon at the Alhambra's bookstore – it was published simultaneously in many languages. There are an unusually large number of typos – two or three dozen I'd guess – but they are all obvious single-letter misspellings or punctuation marks doubled up. OTOH, the edition is beautifully embellished with two dozen engravings of the Alhambra and Generalife from Irving's period.

The Generalife contains a Christian quarter and a Jewish quarter, and it is said that for the 500 years prior to the Spanish taking the fortress and imposing the Inquisition, the three religions got along pretty well, in mutual prosperity within the fortress.

Irving won't leave you gasping for breath or searching the fireplace flames as Shakespeare will, but he's a first-rate teller of tales, and the book's final 175 or so pages – the heart of the collection of stories -- is a masterful display of the art of the storyteller, positioned just at the transitional overlapping of the oral and written arts.

Pure delight!
Last edited by Steve Minkin on Thu Mar 05, 2020 12:25 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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I posted a massive, 7000+ word review of Lord Of The Rings on Weighing A Pig, focusing on a pet peeve of mine: bullshit on free will & moral choice in literature. There's also some talk on the book vs. the movies.

The link is here, if you're interested:

https://schicksalgemeinschaft.wordpress ... kien-1955/

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The Mutability of Literature

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Terrific little piece on writers and writing by Washington Irving, from the Sketchbook:

https://www.bartleby.com/109/6.html

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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Obviously our reading of Measure For Measure is postponed indefinitely. We'll talk about rescheduling once the plague passes.


Washington Irving -- The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Other Stories: Or, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819-20)


This is the collection of 34 short stories, sketches and essays that made Irving's reputation. They vary widely in quality and interest, but the author assures us in the L'Envoy that if the reader "should find here and there something to please him to rest assured that it was written expressly for intelligent readers like himself; but intreating him, should he find anything to dislike, to tolerate it, as one of those articles which the author has been obliged to write for readers of a less refined taste."

The volume was first published in England with the help of Walter (not yet Sir) Scott, and Irving was living there at the time, so much of the book is devoted to English themes; and it is in these often tedious descriptions of this or that feature of British life or scenery where Irving loses me. But most of the book ranges from entertaining to great, and as a whole is well worth reading for both its literary merit and as a window into early 19th century life.

What's great? The Legend of Sleepy Hollow! A magnificent tale brilliantly told with images that haunt the mind, vividly etched characters and landscapes, and a thrilling ghost story with a subtlety revealed logical explanation tucked into its closing, an authentic classic unfortunately relegated to the 'children's literature' section in most reader's minds. Well worth revisiting!

I previously mentioned the excellent essay on literature, The Mutability of Literature: https://www.bartleby.com/109/6.html

Rip van Winkle is a fine story with many charming details. (On Rip's wife:)
" . . . a tart temper never mellows with age, and a sharp tongue is the only edged tool that grows keener with constant use."
" . . . Nicholas Vedder, a patriarch of the village, and landlord of the inn, at the door of which he took his seat from morning till night, just moving sufficiently to avoid the sun, and keep in the shade of a large tree; so that the neighbors could tell the hour by his movements as accurately as by a sun-dial."


The three Christmas chapters (Eve, Day, and Dinner) were surprisingly engaging – Irving is whisked off by an old traveling companion from the Continent to his father's manor house where Christmas is celebrated in the grand old style with a cast of hundreds. Who knew that the Yule log was lit each year by the last piece of charred wood left over from the previous year's log, or that peacock pie (decorated with the bird's feathers) was a traditional English holiday dish? (In this case, they used the feathers but cooked a pheasant because the local peacock flock was ailing).

There are also a couple of chapters on Native Americans – Irving is outraged at how they've been treated by the Christian immigrants, and praises the natives' character and courage in the face of treachery and brutality. "How different is virtue, clothed in purple and enthroned in state, from virtue naked and destitute, and perishing obscurely in wilderness."

I mentioned earlier the two rather disappointing Shakespeare pieces, although not devoid of interest for Bardophiles. (My spell check insists this is a misspelling of Pedophiles.) And one finds notable phrases even in some of pieces which are duds: "The neighbors met with good will, parted with a shake of the hand, and never abused each other except behind their backs."

The book as a whole is inexpensive cruise back two centuries in time.
The Headless Horseman and Mutability of Literature are must reads!

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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EDUCATED – Tara Westover (2018)

Remarkable memoir, and publishing debut. The author was raised in rural Idaho by survivalist Mormon parents preparing for the end times. She and her siblings were home schooled, which meant they worked in the family junkyard or preparing herbal medicines. The father was bi-polar and a religious fanatic, the oldest brother was a sadistic abuser, and significant injuries and humiliations were part of the family's daily life.

Tara and two of her brothers left the mountain home and earned PhDs, all the rest remained to work in the family businesses. Tara gets a scholarship to BYU, largely on the strength of her ability to teach herself complex subjects. She wins a scholarship to Cambridge, scared to death that she will be exposed for never having actually graduated high school and for coming from a crazed and violent family. At Cambridge she is assigned an eminent scholar as an adviser, who finally wrenches the truth out of her that she was never actually educated in any school. She expects to be expelled and shamed. Instead the professor cried, "How marvelous! It's as if I've stepped into Shaw's Pygmalion."

Of course her parents think she's damned for taking the path she's on, and much of the book deals with her anguished (and perhaps never fully resolved) conflict between wanting the love of her parents and family and wanting the new self she has discovered and created. (I would use the word 'agency,' although she does not.) She returns many times to the mountain, trying to make peace with her parents, while we the reader ineffectively plead with her to give it up.

It's a strong, fast-paced, often brutal, deeply felt, finely written debut, highly recommended.

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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Well, obviously.
Hadn't read since A-level French, had forgotten how utterly magnificent it is

"La presse, si bavarde dans l'affaire des rats, ne parlait plus de rien. C'est que les rats meurent dans la rue et les hommes dans leur chambre. Et les journaux ne s'occupent que de la rue."
http://www.paristransatlantic.com
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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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Dan Warburton wrote:Image

Well, obviously.
Hadn't read since A-level French, had forgotten how utterly magnificent it is

"La presse, si bavarde dans l'affaire des rats, ne parlait plus de rien. C'est que les rats meurent dans la rue et les hommes dans leur chambre. Et les journaux ne s'occupent que de la rue."
I tried to reread that maybe a month ago myself. But I found it too upsetting under the circumstances.
"Freedom of thought and speech without available means of gaining information and methods of sound analysis, are empty. Protection and security are meaningless until there is something positive worth protecting." E.W. Hall

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Piano Mouth
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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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Can someone recommend me some Japanese literature? I recently read The Memory Police and general like female Japanese writers.

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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Stefan Zweig – Chess (novella, 80 pps, 1941, a year before the author took his own life)

Magnificent! I was blown away by the work. I can't separate my lifelong passion for chess as a competitive player from my enthusiasm for the work, but the writing is of such fine quality that I feel sure non-players will enjoy the piece, too. It is essentially the stories of two very different chess masters with very different biographies. The biography of the mysterious challenger to the world champion is told with the kind of monomaniacal first-person intensity you might find in one of Poe's madmen, but with the logic and sophistication of a cultured gentleman facing life-threatening stressors. Tremendous energy! Highest recommendation.

Might be almost 60 years since I've read Zweig, The Invisible Collection, also a very strong story. Must check out some more, this was powerful and masterful.

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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TENTH OF DECEMBER – George Saunders (2013)

I was drawn to this after being blown away by Saunders' first novel, Lincoln In The Bardo (see above), and was not disappointed. He's primarily known as a short story writer.

Saunders' short stories defy easy description as they are primarily classic short stories, but with elements of science fiction, horror, experimental, and other non-traditional touches. He almost seems to conjure up a new style for each story.

One wades into the stories never fully clued in on what's going on, he never spoon-feeds his readers. But if you hang with the story on its own terms, all is eventually revealed, almost always with a very compassionate and human face. The opening story, Victory Lap, tells of a violent and traumatic incident among three young people, and one has to reread the end of the story to remind oneself of what happened versus what was a nightmare that was dreampt, and one is left reminded that traumatic episodes that end 'well' still leave their scars.

There's a two-page story titled Sticks brilliantly illustrating how one man's ritual relic is another's piece of junk. Al Roosten is a story of quiet desperation. The Semplica Girls is a socially charged story of [SPOILER ALERT] impoverished immigrant girls being threaded together through their heads in sets to serve as lawn decorations.

And the wonderful final title story is a gritty, painfully real, life-affirming tale of finding heroism and fulfillment in the most unexpected ways.

Most of the stories are told as two or three first-person narratives, and Saunders has a wonderful way of capturing inner dialogues and the speech of the back streets. The prose is fresh, and the stories echo in the mind after they're finished.

Very highly recommended!

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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Just reviewed a brilliant, overlooked novel about 2 physicists entangled in corruption, mid-life crises, institutional incentives, technological inevitability, the end of the Cold War, nuclear bombs & the Star Wars missile defense program, existential risks & accelerationism. Based on true events, with unparalleled realistic dialogue. A bleak masterpiece...

RADIANCE - Carter Scholz (2002)

(...)

Thematically, Scholz pairs a character that is realistic and sees human politics for what it is – inevitable, Machiavellian, out of control, conflicted – and one that is naive, in search for truth. But in the novel – as in life – truth is problematic, as even smart men can’t agree. It is not much of a spoiler to say the tragedy of Quine is that he eventually makes ‘moral’ mistakes like Highet too. Yet, morality is in the eye of the beholder, and while Scholz has written a political book, it steers clear of easy judgements or finger pointing. Democratic oversight is very hard to get right, and bureaucracy unavoidable. Decisions are “taken in the absolute vacuum of procedure and contingency”, and humans have complex, differing motivations. We all need to eat.

(...)

Full review on Weighing A Pig

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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Strange, weird new novel of Harrison,the first in 7 years.

THE SUNKEN LAND BEGINS TO RISE AGAIN - M. John Harrison (2020)

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(...)

But this is a review, so I have to tell you something about the beautiful, beautiful prose, which at times is maybe bit overdone as well. But that didn’t really bother me: it’s art’s prerogative. This novel is first and foremost about its sentences – just like Twin Peaks: The Return is about the scenes. Harrison’s prose consists of fragments of 2020 contemporary life, and an eye for plants and how the weather affects light. I also have to tell you about certain meta-parts, in which Harrison seems to opt out of knowing what the novel is all about himself. Parts which at times are maybe too involved with the novel itself, but then again, maybe necessary to reassure the reader: don’t be afraid if the ground is unstable, do trod on. And I also have to tell you something about how this novel at the same time is disjointed and one long, coherent dream of consciousness. I would not be surprised if Harrison carefully welded most of this together from scenes out of his flash fiction scrapbook. I also have to tell you this novel conveys meaning nonetheless, with enough sharp observations about our shared world and the human experience. I don’t think there was a page that didn’t intrigue me.

(...)

Full review on Weighing A Pig

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dialectics of shit
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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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Recently finished The Tain of the Mirror, which I highly recommend, and now find myself ~100 pages into this and quite enjoying. Gasché writes about such abstract concepts with prodigious clarity while not only avoiding simplification but, paradoxically, expanding the very depths he plumbs, and he seems to get Derrida in a way that many, frankly, don't. His exploration of infrastructures (covered extensively in Tain), in particular, is pure candy for my brain.

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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Between The World and Me – Ta-Nehisi Coates
winner National Book Award for Non-Fiction 2015

Very strong slim volume on being black in America. The book consists primarily of two letters from a father to his son, and that context assumes perspectives that will give non-black readers cause to pause now and then, to digest what is being said.

The book is as much biography as philosophy, so I won't mutilate the book by attempting to summarize its viewpoint. Key to the story of the author's life is his time at Howard, not just the school but the generations-old Mecca of black thought, an arena where each idea unfolded into a dozen conflicting or diverging ideas.

I'll hit some of the key insights:
" . . . race is the child of racism, not the father."
" . . . a society that protects some people through a safety net of schools, government-backed home loans, and ancestral wealth but can only protect you with the club of criminal justice has either failed at enforcing its good intentions or has succeeded at something much darker."
"And I learned that 'Shorty, can I see your bike?' was never a sincere question, and 'Yo, you was messing with my cousin' was neither an earnest accusation nor a misunderstanding of the facts."
"Why were only our heroes non-violent? . . . The world, the real one, was civilization secured and ruled by savage means. . . How could they send us out into the streets of Baltimore, knowing all that they were, and then speak of nonviolence?"
"Mistakes were made. Bodies were broken. People were enslaved. We meant well. We tried our best. 'Good intention' is a hall pass through history, a sleeping pill that ensures the Dream."

The author wrestles with Bellow's question, "Who is the Tolstoy of the the Zulus?" At Howard he comes across Ralph Wiley's essay that answers the question with "Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties into exclusive tribal ownership."

[conclusion of the first of the two letters to his son]: "You have to make your peace with the chaos, but you cannot lie. You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton and gold."

At one point the author is stopped by police, and realizes he has no control over the safety of his body. A few weeks later, a friend from Howard is killed by a policeman under very suspicious circumstances. Coates gives an impassioned brief history of all that the young man's parents had put into rearing the boy, an exemplary Christian youth with a bright future ahead of him. "Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered."

In the last section of the book, the author meets the radiologist who was the mother of his friend from Howard who was killed by a policeman, a grand and widely respected lady. "Her disposition was that of an elite athlete who knows the opponent is dirty and the refs are on the take, but also knows the championship is one game away."

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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This is incredible so far and I have high hopes for it, so much happens in such a short amount of time. I'm on chapter twenty something only and so far it's been a fine read.

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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DRIVE YOUR PLOW OVER THE BONES OF THE DEAD - Olga Tokarczuk (2009)

(...)

This also struck me as a cousin of The Door by Hungarian author Magda Szabó – an absolute masterpiece that also deals with an eccentric old female protagonist that’s something of a housekeeper, and similarly has a vibe that gently flirts with fairy tales & the mythic. The Door is one of my favorite books ever, so I had to check out this one too.

While Szabó’s book is superior, I had a great time reading Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead.

What makes Tokarczuk’s book a bit of a lesser affair is that it’s more obvious and transparent than The Door. Nonetheless, I get what the Nobel Prize committee meant when they awarded her the price for her “narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”. There clearly is transgression in this book, and, as such, the excess Blake speaks of.

(...)


Full review on Weighing A Pig

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Re: Currently Reading: Chapter II

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Uwe Johnson, 'Een jaar uit het leven van Gesine Cresspahl'. The Dutch translation of 'Jahrestage'. Originally published in 4 volumes in German, NYRB Classics has published this in two volumes: 'Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl.
In Dutch it is the most beautiful edition in 1 volume, large format (pages are 16 x 24 cm), 1600 pages. Monumental and immersive. About an immigrant woman from (East-)Germany, it all takes place in one year from 1967 to 1968, taking in German and European history of the first half of the 20th century, mixed with the fifties and sixties in (East-)Germany, and late sixties in New-York and Vietnam and so on; containing news snippets, commentary and all manner of diversions. Net difficult to read, but following the story if there actually is one is another thing. But it meanders beautifully, and I like it a lot. Nothing much happens even though much is going on. Hard to explain, but highly recommended!
plus sonat quam valet - seneca