FINISHING WHAT I STARTED

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The story thus far:  In her last post, Bad Girl was confessing to having been greedy and self-indulgent about books, to having bought books more quickly than she can read them.  Bad Girl of course is me, the one with the punitive super-ego and a determination to finish whatever I start, however long it takes. That goes for both (a) reading the books on the windowsill and (b) telling you about them.  Telling is easier and faster than reading.  Are you up for it?

1. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. Three-volume boxed set. I did manage to make my way through half a one-volume edition in my twenties, but never finished. Why begin again? Because two Septembers ago, I re-read Anna Karenina,  after more than half a century. This time I loved it so much.  The half-century had changed me as a reader.  Anna was no longer just the story of an adulterous love affair gone bad, as I once thought, which had made much of the rest of the book uninteresting. It was a whole vanished world brought back to life, a world in which Anna played only a not-so-admirable, although tragic, part, and one I hated to leave when I reached the last page. War and Peace is longer than Anna, so I thought having it in three volumes rather than a single heavy and bulky one would make it physically easier to hold and read.  It’s also a beautiful edition, bound in wine-colored cloth.  In fact, just telling you about it makes me want to drop everything and begin. Ah, well.

2. Beethoven, by Lewis Lockwood. A year ago Bill and I took a terrific night course at Princeton Adult School on listening to Beethoven’s  piano sonatas, taught by Scott Burnham, the Schiede Professor of Music at Princeton University.  He was witty, lyrical, enthusiastic, gymnastic, and wore jeans:  everything one wants, and rarely gets, all rolled up in a single professor. He recommended Lockwood as the one book to read on Beethoven if we were going to read only one.  (In number two place was  Maynard Solomon’s Beethoven  — the psychological approach to biography. But I had already bought and read that one.) We’ve signed up for a second course with Burnham this spring.  He will almost certainly recommend another book.  Fortunately, there’s still room on the metaphorical windowsill.

3.  A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel. I loved, loved, loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies — the first two remarkable books in her three-volume fictional account of the life of Thomas Cromwell. It was so hard to emerge from the sixteenth century when I had finished that I had to go back to read many parts again. Hurry up with the third volume, Hilary!  In the meanwhile, there’s this book, also fictional, which she wrote earlier about three men who counted for a lot in the French Revolution: Robespierre, Danton and Camille Desmoulins. 748 pages in paperback, though. Which explains why it’s still on the windowsill.

4.  The End of the Story, by Lydia Davis.  Davis is the skilled and sensitive translator of the most recent edition in English of Proust’s Swann’s Way.  Her ability to tame his labyrinthian, sometimes page-long sentences into beautiful and accurate readability was extraordinary.  She also writes short — often very very short — stories, which have been collected and can currently be purchased all together in one book. This one is her only “novel,” and is much slimmer, so I thought I would start with that.  Except I haven’t. Yet.

5.  This Is The Story of A Happy Marriage, by Ann Patchett. A novelist whose work I have read only sporadically, and chiefly when her short stories appear in The New Yorker  (to which I’ve subscribed faithfully, with very few breaks, since I was twenty and a youthful admirer of J.D. Salinger, whose stories were then appearing in its pages). Patchett recently became the co-proprietor of a bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee, where she now lives — so that Nashville should have a place where one can buy the kinds of books she likes to read.  I visited Nashville several times during the year one of my sons was working there and concluded that Nashville did indeed need an independent bookstore.  Which predisposed me to like Patchett and therefore to acquire this, her latest book — a collection of essays and other short pieces.  I am particularly inclined to short pieces, not only because they are short, but because they are what I have been trying to write, both before the blog and also now that I’m blogging. I’ve always maintained that you learn to write by reading. Even at eighty-two. Just give me time.

6.  Little Failure, A Memoir, by Gary Shteyngart. His fourth and newest book. I’m beginning to like memoirs, if well written, much better than most fiction.  Moreover, Shteyngart is a funny, sad, bitter and skillful writer, who is also a Russian Jew brought to Brooklyn by his parents when he was seven.  That makes us landsmen, although he’s about half my age. Also, I read his first two and enjoyed them.  How could I not buy this one? (P.S.  “Little Failure” is what his parents used to call him.  In Russian, of course.)

7. Coin Street Chronicles, by Gwen Southgate.  Last fall, Bill and I participated in a seminar course on “Five Angry Young Men and One Woman” at the Evergreen Forum, a lifelong learning program in Princeton designed principally for “seniors.” It was taught by Lee Harrod, an emeritus professor of The College of New Jersey. We read and discussed novels and plays written in England during the two decades after World War II. Gwen Southgate, who I did not know before, was also in the class.  As a child, she had lived through that war in England, and had much of great interest to tell us.  (Had there been a class vote, we two would have been tied for Most Talkative.) One of the others in the class let it be known that Gwen had written a memoir about her childhood. She is my contemporary.  Despite the dissimilarities between us  — as you may note from her occasional comments on this blog, which she is kind enough to follow — how could I not buy her book?  Now I just have to find time to read it.

8. Lit, A Memoir, by Mary Karr.  A mistaken purchase.  Last spring, I took a short Princeton University course for auditors  about Literary Memoir.  A reading list was posted online, but later revised.  This book was on the original list and then removed, but I had already bought a used copy of it.    Although it was no longer part of the curriculum, I kept it for future reading because it’s a confessional. (“Lit” being a colloquial synonym for “drunk.”)  I too once wrote 187 pages of a confessional, which is still on my computer.  (Original title: “My Secret Life.” Now retitled. Not about alcoholism.) My 187 pages were intended to be Part I of a two-part book.  However, I never could work out how to do the second part and thought I might get some ideas from Karr. Since I haven’t had the time or urge to read her book yet, I still draw a blank on finishing my own.  Sorry, no more questions.

9. The AfterLife, Essays and Criticism, by Penelope Fitzgerald.  She was a wonderful novelist who began to write relatively late in life.  The Blue Flower is unforgettable, but I have also found pleasure in all her other novels, and have re-read many of them. This book, published posthumously, contains her non-fiction. I have no idea what I will find when I sit down with it.  I bought the book because what’s in it was from her. When I find an author this good, I’m intensely loyal.

10. Memories of a Marriage, by Louis Begley.  Another loyalty choice. It may be good, it may be less good: I don’t care. Begley was an international corporate lawyer at a major New York law firm (he’s now retired) who took a three month sabbatical to write his first book, Wartime Lies, at the age of 63. I give paperback copies of it to everyone I care about.  It attached me to him for life, although I am less fond of some of his subsequent fiction, which is concerned with the problems of aging men.  (Caveat: Why The Dreyfus Affair Matters, not fiction, is a must-read.)  When I see Begley has put out a new book, I buy it.  Simple as that.  This is the latest.

11. The Conquest of Happiness, by Bertrand Russell. A very used and yellowed copy, purchased last summer after a brief fling with Gretchen Rubin’s blog, The Happiness Project.  Gretchen recommended it.  She went to Yale Law School and clerked for Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court before she became a blogger. So maybe she knows something I don’t.  Besides, who doesn’t want to be happy?  Then I got happier.  Not necessarily thanks to her. So I haven’t read the book yet.

12. A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L’Engle. Another Gretchen recommendation.  She loves children’s books.  (She has two little girls, according to her blog.)  This book, I know, is a classic.  However, I never read or gave it to my own children when they were young. So I was curious. Curiosity may not kill (if you’re not a cat), but it does result in less space on your shelf.

13. Frenchwomen Don’t Get Facelifts, by Mireille Guilano.  Don’t laugh.  I have a certain interest in both France and facelifts. [Two summers ago I ventured to explore this facelift business with an actual cosmetic surgeon, but decided no. Didn’t know that about me, did you?]  Also, my younger son once made me a present of Guilano’s earlier book, Frenchwomen Don’t Get Fat, when he saw me eyeing it in a bookstore.  It was a fun read, and I kept it — possibly because of who had bought it for me. Obviously I needed its sequel.  Well, I did.  Didn’t I?  Didn’t I?

14. Diving for Pearls, A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt, by Kathleen B. Jones.  I met Kathy last October at a very crowded fund-raiser tea given in New York by Persimmontree, an online magazine of the arts by women over sixty.  I was there with a friend who had contributed a piece to the magazine, as I had done.  Kathy was the guest of another contributor.  We found ourselves face to face in the crush — many contributors, small private house — and got to talking.  She is a retired American academic now living in Bristol, England and writing up a storm.  Blog, book, articles.  We liked each other, and promised to stay in touch.  Then she went back to England. This book on her intellectual/philosophical journey with Hannah Arendt, which she mentioned during the tea, was published last November, after a sizable excerpt had appeared in the Los Angeles Times. I read the excerpt and bought the book.  Well, wouldn’t you? Although I’m not much of a philosopher, the reason the book’s still on the windowsill is a time thing. Really and truly. If we do get together again in the spring, which we discussed but now seems to me doubtful considering how busy she is with Arendt conferences, of course I will read it first.  (And hope I understand it.)  I never show up without having done my homework!

15. Sweet Tooth, by Ian McEwan.  Another quasi-loyalty selection. Enjoyed Atonement and Saturday.  Thought On Chesil Beach was well done, although I found it hard to believe.  (But then I’m not English.)  So why not his next one?  Sweet Tooth has only been in the house for about two weeks, and I might actually be able to get to it in the foreseeable future, as it doesn’t seem too taxing. It may therefore be only a temporary windowsill resident.

16. 2666, by Roberto Bolano.  I forgot why I had bought this and had to look at the cover and frontispiece to refresh my memory. There I learned that Bolano lived in Mexico and Spain, where he died prematurely at the age of 50. 2066 was published posthumously and won major awards in Spain and Latin America. When translated into English by Natasha Wimmer, it won the National Book Critics Circle Award. But in paperback it has 898 pages, which partially explains why I have been slow to begin.  But only partially explains.  The description of it in The Washington Post is also off-putting:  “With 2066, Bolano joins the ambitious overachievers of the twentieth-century novel, those like Proust, Musil, Joyce, Gaddis, Pynchon, Fuentes and Vollmann, who push the novel far past the conventional size and scope to encompass an entire era, deploying encyclopedic knowledge and stylistic verve to offer a grand, if sometimes idiosyncratic, summation of their culture and the novelist’s place in it.  Bolano has joined the immortals.”  And here is Francine Prose, in Harper’s Magazine: “The opening of 2066 had me in thrall from those first few pages….For all the precision and poetry of its language, for all the complexity of its structure, for all the range of styles and genres it acknowledges and encompasses, for all its wicked humor, its inventiveness and sophistication, 2666 seems like the work of a literary genius.”  Will I be smart enough for this book?  Or will I go down in defeat? I hesitate to find out.

17. My Early Life, by Winston Churchill.  A third Gretchen Rubin recommendation. I read this long ago just after Churchill died, but somehow became separated from my original copy.  Since Gretchen recommended it, I bought it again, to see what she thought was so special about it.  Haven’t yet re-read it.

18. Wives and Daughters, by Elizabeth Gaskell.  A purchase driven by having seen and enjoyed the movie made of the book on Netflix. Wanted more. After a few pages, the book itself proved too much more.  Maybe I’ll do better with it another time.

19. Elizabeth Gaskell, by Jenny Uglow.  Biography of the author. Don’t say I’m not thorough when I decide to look into something.

20. Works on Paper, The Craft of Biography and Autobiography, by Michael Holroyd.  I liked both parts of his own autobiography.  This one is a collection of short pieces on a subject in which I am interested.  Perhaps it will teach me something more about how to write about myself? (Which, as you can’t help but notice, I do quite a bit of.)  We’ll find out if I ever get around to reading it.

21. Less Than One, Selected Essays, by Joseph Brodsky. From Bill.  Too important to give back.  Too gloomy to take to the bathroom.  Dilemma.  Windowsill.

22. The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, by Alan Jacobs.  Also from Bill.  I do like the title.  And it’s a very slender book.  So it’s a keeper. For now.

23. Gulag, A History, by Anne Applebaum.  The Gulag was, of course, the vast array of Soviet concentration camps that held millions of political and criminal prisoners, and part of the system of repression and punishment that terrorized an entire society. This book about it, winner of the Pulitzer Prize, was so highly praised we bought it twice.  I bought it for Bill as a surprise, and Bill bought it for Bill before my surprise arrived.  So then he had two copies, and guess who got the other one. I do not dispute its merit.  “The most authoritative — and comprehensive — account of this Soviet blight ever published by a Western writer.” (Newsweek)  “A titanic achievement: learned and moving and profound….No reader will easily forget Applebaum’s vivid accounts of the horrible human suffering of the Gulag.”  (National Review) “Lucid, painstakingly detailed, never sensational, it should have a place on every educated reader’s shelves.” (Los Angeles Times)  I modestly admit I am an educated reader, and now the book does have a place on my shelves.  But the thing is, I don’t want to read vivid accounts of horrible human suffering.  It’s bad enough to know such suffering existed.  Must I?  I suppose I must.  Just not yet, please….

24. Hermit in Paris, by Italo Calvino.  A third from Bill. Probably not long for the windowsill.  Flipping through it one day, I discovered a snippy bit about my alma mater.  This classy author was arch and snide about Sarah Lawrence College?  No, Italo, no!  I can be arch and snide if I want, but you can’t. I’m a graduate, you were a guest. If you keep this up the next time I flip your pages, back to Bill you go!

25. Unknown Masterpieces: Writers Rediscover Literature’s Hidden Classics.  Bill can’t stop.  Why does he keep doing this to me?  Doesn’t he think I have enough to read?  On the other hand, this one is easy to tuck into a large handbag for reading away from home.  Interesting short pieces by writers I have heard of (like John Updike, Susan Sontag, Francine Prose, Toni Morrison, Lydia Davis, Elizabeth Hardwick) about writers I’ve never heard of that the known-to-me writers consider “hidden classics.”  Why not?  Let it stay.  It might come in handy sometime.

26-28.  Portrait of A Lady;The Wings of the Dove;The Golden Bowl, all by Henry James.  I once audited a course at Princeton on the novels of Henry James and William Faulkner because these two authors, who are each in his own way difficult, represented yawning gaps in my reading experience. In the course, we had time only to read James’s Daisy Miller, The American, The Ambassadors, The Turn of the Screw and four or five of the short stories.  Unfortunately, I tend to become overenthusiastic about whatever I do while I’m doing it, although the glow often fades fast afterwards.  So it was with James.  Wings and Bowl are two of the late difficult novels we didn’t cover in class that I just had to have, and Portrait is too well known not to have read.  I was certainly going to attend to all three of them when the semester was over. That was nearly three years ago.

29-32. Go Down Moses; Light in August; Absalom, Absalom; Selected Short Stories, all by William Faulkner. For an explanation of why these are in my home, see 26-28 above.  Different author, but same Princeton course, same initial enthusiasm, same result.  Shelved, until further notice.

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In the interests of full disclosure, I admit that I’m omitting discussion of the titles on my iPad, whether from Kindle or iBook, because this post is now far too long as it is, and I can’t believe anyone could possibly still be sufficiently interested in it to scroll down any further.

I am also not mentioning James Joyce’s Ulysses, Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (other than Swann’s Way), Dante’s Inferno and the Shakespeare plays I haven’t yet read, all of which I hope I will read before I die — because I’ve owned copies of them for far longer than three years and if we begin examining my entire library, we will not be done for a very long time.  Enough is enough.  Even for me.

Out of the confessional and on to something else.  Any suggestions?

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4 thoughts on “FINISHING WHAT I STARTED

  1. annie

    In reply to #23 above: I’m so with you on reading about man’s inhumanity to man! It’s painfully difficult, so I choose what and how much I need to read and then try not to have nightmares!
    Another well-written, interesting and amusing piece.

    Like

  2. Gwen Southgate

    I was in turn astonished, chagrined, and then flattered to find Coin Street Chronicles part of your window sill collection. Astonished for obvious reasons; chagrined to discover that it was among the un-read-as-of-yet books; flattered when I reflected that it was in pretty good company. (Thank you, Nina!)

    By the way, I read (or don’t read) your blogs not out of kindness–but depending on whether I do (or don’t) find them interesting and enjoyable. This particular blog is a mixed bag — and much less interesting when you have not yet even dipped into the volume. Which, I suppose, indicates that its appeal lies in YOUR VOICE, Nina!

    As for some of your other books:
    1) I too found it hard to leave the XVIth century and Hilary Mantel — and a wee bit difficult to explain to others just WHY. I also strongly recommend two (very different) novels by Hilary: An Experiment in Love and Eight Months on Ghazzah Street.
    2) With Chesil Beach it IS a big help to be British…and female.
    3) The Golden Bowl has been on my yet-to-get-through list for longer than I care to think about, after three quite serious tries.
    4) War & Peace I found quite an easy read, first when I was in college (Prince Andrew was my first serious love –every mention of him set my young heart a-flutter!), and much later in life (when my heart was no longer so susceptible).

    Like

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