A Hero of Our Time

new 1001And then again…there is boundless delight in the possession of a young, barely unfolded soul! It is like a flower whose best fragrance emanates to meet the first ray of the sun. It should be plucked that very minute and after inhaling one’s fill of it, one should throw it away on the road: perchance someone will pick it up! I feel in myself this insatiable avidity, which engulfs everything met on the way. I look upon the sufferings and joys of others only in relation to myself as on the food sustaining the strength of my soul. I am no longer capable myself of frenzy under the influence of passion: ambition with me has been suppressed by circumstances, but it has manifested itself in another form, since ambition is nothing else than thirst for power, and my main pleasure–which is to subjugate to my will all that surrounds me, and to excite the emotions of love, devotion, and fear in relation to me–is it not the main sign and greatest triumph of power? To be to somebody the cause of sufferings and joys without having any positive right to it–is this not the sweetest possible nourishment for our pride? And what is happiness? Sated pride. If I considered myself to be better and more powerful than anyone in the world, I would be happy; if everybody loved me, I would find in myself infinite sources of love. Evil begets evil: the first ache gives us an idea of the pleasure of tormenting another . The idea of evil cannot enter a person’s head without his wanting to apply it to reality: ideas are organic creations. Someone has said that their very birth endows them with a form, and this form is action; he in whose head more ideas have been born is more active than others. This is why a genius chained to an office desk must dies or go mad, exactly as a powerfully built man, whose life is sedentary and whose behavior is virtuous, dies of apoplexy.

So writes Pechorin in one portion of this early Russian novel. Mikhail Lermontov is credited as the person who paved the way for the later great Russian novelists with this work. It is lyrical in the translation by Vladamir Nabokov, and the images of the countryside in the Caucasus region are beautiful. The novel unfolds by first introducing the reader to Pechorin through the stories of Maksim Maksimich, who tells of his earlier friendship with Pechorin as he passes time with the narrator, a fellow traveler on the winter roads. Later, Pechorin himself enters the tale, and we get a different view of him. The remainder of the novel is his journals, in which we get the intimate vision of his personality partially shown in the above extended quote.

I didn’t love this novel, but did enjoy it. It is worth reading for the language, if nothing else, and for a portrait of this complicated man.

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Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

new 1001This is another of my TBR Challenge Books. I’ve had it on Kindle forever, but always turned away and started something else. This year I decided I really wanted to catch up on my 1001 Books reading while doing the challenges I tackle on Goodreads every year. It seemed like a good time to try Ivanhoe.

Here is what I wrote on Goodreads: A romance set in the time of Richard the Lionhearted, this includes lots of legendary and real characters from the 12th century. This book was seen as having a fairly positive portrayal of Jews for the time in which it was written, but as a 21st century convert to the faith, it is still pretty hard to take some of the portrayal, particularly of Isaac. It was a fun read, though, and made me go back and read a bit about the history of the period and the history of the Saxons. It is fun as the various characters who are hiding their identities start to reveal who they are. I won’t spoil it, but there are some folks I wasn’t expecting who turn up here.

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Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

new 1001I just finished Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz. It was a novel set during WWII in an alley in Cairo. The book follows the daily lives of the different people living and working in the alley. The characters are nicely developed–I am about to teach a personality testing course and I could almost have filled out one of the tests I am teaching on at least a couple of the characters. It took me a little while to get into the book–it sort of lazes along–but in the end, I was trying to finish the book before going to sleep and really was frustrated that I couldn’t quite stay awake to the end. I have had the book for a long time, and am glad I finally got to read it.

If you want to see what I picture, but updated to today, when I think of this alley, you can click here.

Since I read the book, I have been thinking about what life would be like living in a very small space, with very few possessions, a very simple life, and only a few people in my world. It would be so vastly different from how we live in much of the world today.

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January Check in For 2018 TBR Challenge #TBR2018RBR

I have made a great dent in my list this month. It will get harder from here, since classes start tomorrow. So far this January, I have read:

  1. Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
  2. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  3. Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

I’m currently about halfway through A Hero of Our Time.

As I post reviews for them, I will link them. I’m proud of myself for reading Midaq Alley finally. I read another of Mahfouz’s books years ago and liked it, but I have been staring at this one on my shelves since 2011. I enjoyed it, although I wasn’t completely blown away. Ivanhoe was another that I’d been avoiding, but it also went quickly, although I ended up listening to it rather than reading my paper copy. Silence of the Lambs almost felt like cheating, since I had already seen the movie, but I read Red Dragon first, so I went into it with a somewhat different perspective than if I had just read with a vague memory of the movie in mind.

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2018 TBR Reading Challenge

One of the blogs I follow, RoofbeamReader, has an annual challenge (except when he was writing his dissertation, which I totally get) to help people weed out all those books that have been sitting around for more than a year begging to be read. I have participated other years, and decided to opt in again. I am trying to replace fiddling with electronics at bedtime with reading a book instead, and so I am actually dipping back in to my vast supply of books on paper in addition to my audiobooks.

So I have to commit to 12 up front, which is hard, but I’m doing some challenges on goodreads which have given me a bit of a path to follow. Here are my choices (and the alternates in case some are too awful to keep going):

  1. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
  2. Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
  3. The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris
  4. Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott
  5. Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow
  6. Surfacing by Margaret Atwood
  7. The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon
  8. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Benieres
  9. Giants in the Earth by E. O. Rolvang
  10. The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
  11.  The  Winter Vault by Anne Michaels
  12. Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

And for alternates:

  1. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
  2. Kim by Rudyard Kipling

I think I’m most likely to chicken out of #12, but I need it for a Goodreads challenge, so it may last.

Wish me luck!

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A Quick Catch-up Post

ATWIB 2013 Well, I’m reading a lot, but I’m not doing a very good job of filling you in on what I’m reading. Work is winning in the battle for my time. So this is what I’ve been doing, other than reading The Grief of Others, the only book I’ve managed to review in ages. Don’t expect very thorough reviews…

The End of the AffairThe End of the Affair by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“I became aware that our love was doomed; love had turned into a love affair with a beginning and an end. I could name the very moment when it had begun, and one day I knew I should be able to name the final hour. When she left the house I couldn’t settle to work. I would reconstruct what we had said to each other; I would fan myself into anger or remorse. And all the time I knew I was forcing the pace. I was pushing, pushing the only thing I loved out of my life. As long as I could make believe that love lasted I was happy; I think I was even good to live with, and so love did last. But if love had to die, I wanted it to die quickly. It was as though our love were a small creature caught in a trap and bleeding to death; I had to shut my eyes and wring its neck.”

This novel initially appears to be about the usual love triangle between husband, wife, and other man, but soon it becomes about something profoundly deeper. While it certainly grapples with very human tendencies in relationships, as is clear in the quotation above, it is also about belief and unbelief and the struggle over obligations to God. It continues to be very clear to me why people call Graham Greene a Catholic novelist. I actually feel almost guilty reading him at this point, because I feel like I am cheating on the Jewish tradition that I have converted to when I read his work. I don’t know what it feels like to read Greene if you’ve never been Catholic, but for me, reading him taps into a deep spiritual vein from my former tradition.

Related to this, I wonder if Greene’s novels feel heavy handed if you are not a fairly spiritually oriented person. So much of the richness of his novels is in the religious struggles of his characters. What does this feel like if you read it as an atheist? I’d be interested to hear what others have to say on this.

Pereira MaintainsPereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Pereira maintains he met him one summer’s day. A fine fresh sunny summer’s day and Lisbon was sparkling. It would seem that Pereira was in his office biting his pen, the editor-in-chief was away on holiday while he himself was saddled with getting together the culture page, because the Lisboa was now to have a culture page and he had been given the job. But he, Pereira, was meditating on death. On that beauteous summer day, with the sun beaming away and the sea breeze off the Atlantic kissing the treetops, and a city glittering, literally glittering beneath his window, and a sky of such blue as never was seen, Pereira maintains, and of a clarity almost painful to the eyes, he started to think about death. Why so? Pereira cannot presume to say.”

In this fascinating little book, a pudgy widower and culture page editor is drawn into a political awakening by a young student he hires because of a thesis about death, a subject which turns out to be of much more concern to the editor than to the student himself. Set in Portugal at the time of the Spanish Civil War, it evokes the climate of the era and the degree of suspicion in the air in Lisbon.

The Story of Lucy GaultThe Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“As the surface of the seashore rocks were pitted by by the waves and gathered limpets that further disguised what lay beneath, so time made truth of what appeared to be. The days that passed, in becoming weeks, still did not disturb the surface an assumption had created. The weather of a beautiful summer continued with neither sign nor hint that credence had been misplaced. The single sandal found among the rocks became a sodden image of death; and as the keening on the pier at Kilauran traditionally marked distress brought by the sea, so did silence at Lahardane.”

This is a novel in which small events have devastating consequences. The tale is set in motion by an unsuccessful attempt by Irish youths to set fire to the home of a wealthy landowner and his English wife. Captain Gault, the landowner, accidentally shoots one of the boys in the shoulder when trying to scare them off. After his overtures to the family of the injured boy are rejected, Evert and his wife decide it isn’t say to stay in Ireland, so they prepare to close the house and go abroad. Their young daughter Lucy, not wanting to leave, runs off to be with the one of the staff who has been let go, but twists her ankle in the woods on the way. A dog in the area has stolen items of her clothes in the past when she has been swimming, and has buried them in rocks near the edge of the sea. When Lucy doesn’t come back from playing and her father finds the clothes, she is assumed to have drowned. Eventually the bereft parents go abroad, haunted by grief, and only once they have left, is Lucy discovered in a fallen down vagrant’s hut in the woods, almost dead from starvation.

The tale follows Lucy, her parents, and the boy who was shot in the shoulder as their various destinies play out. It is a story about loss, faith, loyalty, the prison of preconceptions, guilt, forgiveness, and gratitude. It is a beautiful and haunting novel.

Execution Dock (William Monk, #16)Execution Dock by Anne Perry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fun, quick read. Monk is back on the police force, but this time the River Police working the Thames.

Oryx and Crake (MaddAddam Trilogy, #1)Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Selected quotes:

“All it takes,” said Crake, “is the elimination of one generation. One generation of anything. Beetles, trees, microbes, scientists, speakers of French, whatever. Break the link in time between one generation and the next, and it’s game over forever.”

“When they’re gone out of his head, these words, they’ll be gone, everywhere, forever. As if they had never been.”

“He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.”

Oryx and Crake is the first book of the MaddAddam Trilogy. It is a funny, dark, marvelous introduction to a dystopian world. When brilliant geneticists have invented things like pigs that grow bunches of transplantable organs and weird animal hybrids like a skunk/raccoon mis or a vicious dog/wolverine mix, when the profit potential from curing stuff has petered out cause folks can cure every current disease, what happens next? Margaret Atwood gives us the outcome in this novel, where the apocalypse isn’t an explosion, but something much more insidious.

Snowman is wandering what’s left of New England, looking for resources, hiding from creepy hybrid animals, creating a belief system for s strange group of humanoids, engineered by his boyhood friend Crake. We learn of the world before the crisis through his memories of the somewhat bizarre culture in which he was raised.

I can’t wait to read the rest of the series.

The Eye in the Door (Regeneration, #2)The Eye in the Door by Pat Barker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A wonderful continuation of the exploration of war, psychological functioning, and sexualtiy in the Britain of the early 20th century that began with Regeneration. Pat Barker is a brilliant author, and she has chosen powerful characters from British history to work with. Regeneration centered directly on PTSD, or shell-shock as it was called at the time, the ways of treating it, and the moral dilemma of doctors making people well so that they could return to the very war conditions that had made them ill. This novel focuses more on both the complex moral relationship between soldiers and pacifists in wartime and on the situation of gay men in Britain during this era. This is the book of the trilogy which has received the least critical acclaim, but it is still a very strong book. It continues the very powerful therapeutic relationship between Dr. William Rivers and Billy Prior, which brings up powerful issues and questions in both men as it unfolds.

The Ghost Road (Regeneration, #3)The Ghost Road by Pat Barker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“We are Craiglockhart’s success stories. Look at us. We don’t remember, we don’t feel, we don’t think – at least beyond the confines of what’s needed to do the job. By any proper civilized standard (but what does that mean now?) we are objects of horror. But our nerves are completely steady. And we are still alive.”

“Ghosts everywhere. Even the living were only ghosts in the making. You learned to ration your commitment to them. This moment in this tent already had the quality of remembered experience. Or perhaps he was simply getting old. But then, after all, in trench time he was old. A generation lasted six months, less than that on the Somme, barely twelve weeks.”

I truly loved this series. This novel is a powerful blend of letters about life at the front in France during WWI, scenes of a psychiatric and medical hospital in London where the physical and mentally wounded are being treated, and memories of Dr. William Rivers’ time with a tribe of headhunters in Melanesia. It is beautiful, thought-provoking, and heart-rending.

The Sorrows of Young WertherThe Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Wow, I hated this book. Apparently it was Harry Potter like in its ability to create a fan base at the time. People dressed like Werther, imitated Werther, even committed suicide like Werther. Napoleon claimed to have carried it into battle in his jacket pocket. Well, fortunately, I guess, I don’t feel any desire to jump on that bandwagon. Guess I’m not into German Romanticism. My main reaction as I listened to this one was “OH MY GOD, SHUT UP!!!!” And even worse, “get on with killing yourself, already, you insufferable drama queen!”

My main association was to the younger sister in Sense and Sensibility who is a little too into the drama of love, at the expense of common sense and her own well-being. This novel is a huge argument in favor of the sensibility side of that little pairing.

At the beginning of the book, Werther was somewhat less annoying, because while extravagant, he was not yet severely depressed. He spoke of the beauties of nature and waxed rhapsodic about the wisdom of children. I felt like I was getting a bunch of illustrative examples from a humanities course of the themes of German romanticism thrown at me rapid fire. But once Werther got depressed over the marriage of the woman he had been WARNED BEFORE HE EVEN MET HER NOT TO FALL FOR BECAUSE SHE WAS ENGAGED (no, I’m not annoyed at this twit of a character at all…), he became completely unbearable.

I feel a little less guilty for hating this novel because Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wasn’t real into this one in retrospect either. He also soured on Romanticism by late in his life. He didn’t get why everyone was so nuts for Werther, because he felt his portrayal had been pretty critical. I’m hoping I will like his other works better based on this.

I’m in the middle of two fun ones now: Trapeze, a novel about a woman spying in France in WWII, the The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. Reviews to follow!

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On the banks of the Hudson, with Echoes of Wellesley

sunset wellesley


I have leap-frogged over a couple of reviews to discuss this one, because I found myself composing this post in the time remaining in my commute after the novel stopped playing. Something in Leah Hager Cohen’s writing made me long to capture my reactions in my own prose with an intensity I don’t always feel, even after finishing many works of truly amazing literature. And this is definitely a work of literature. I have been reading recently, as part of a research project I hope to do, about the impact of reading literary fiction on various psychological variables. It turns out that reading literary fiction (as opposed to other sorts of fiction and non-fiction) has a measurable effect on the reader’s capacity for empathy. If numerous critics and the Orange Prize list-makers had not singled this one out as a piece of “lit-fic,” my experience of reading it would certainly have told me The Grief of Others fits securely in that category. Literary fiction makes you work, connects you to deep important threads in yourself. Sometimes it does this in hard, complicated, not entirely pleasant ways, but in this case, the same end was accomplished with grace and beauty and gentleness none of which detracted an iota from the novel’s power.

I didn’t find this novel through its great reviews or through the Orange Prize longlist (I don’t tend to focus on prizes til they reach the shortlist stage), but because of a long past connection to the author. I knew Leah Hager Cohen back in the 1980s when for a couple of magical summers I worked for a wonderful summer program known affectionately as Explo on the Wellesley College campus. It brought high school kids from around the country, as well as day students from the local Boston community, to Wellesley for a combination of classes taught by a few young professionals and a larger number of undergraduates from colleges like Harvard, Yale and Brown and fun activities and field trips led by the same absurdly talented motley crew. I was one of the very minor stars in this remarkable night sky. Some of those briefly snatched from the trajectory of their lives for an idyllic summer of languorous afternoons on the lawns and moonlit skinny-dips in the lake included in addition to Hager Cohen, Joe Bowie, who danced professionally for years first with Paul Taylor’s then Mark Morris’s modern dance companies and then retired to a second career as a Culinary Institute-trained baker, Michael Dorf, a constitutional law scholar and faculty member at Cornell University’s School of Law, Cathy Livingston, also an attorney and a leading authority on the Affordable Care Act, and Dimitri Christakis, a professor of pediatrics at University of Washington and expert on children and media whose TED talk is available here The sparkle of the memories from those summers has its source not just in the beautiful setting or the remarkable company in which I found myself, but also in the nature of that unique developmental moment: we were at once fully-formed selves and yet still paradoxically incipient versions of those selves we have since become. There is something of that transitional quality to the identities of the characters in The Grief of Others, despite the range in their ages. Each is a fully developed character with a clear and nuanced essential core, yet each is also on the cusp of becoming something more. I am tremendously grateful that social media’s capacity to reconnect us to dropped threads from the fabric of our earlier lives has brought Leah Cohen back into my world through her writing. Her adult self is possessed of both wisdom and a lyrical voice with which to convey it, and I look forward to her next novel, due out this spring.

The Grief of OthersThe Grief of Others by Leah Hager Cohen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When he was born he was alive. That was one thing.
He was a
he, too, astonishingly–not that anyone expected him to be otherwise, but the notion of one so elemental, so small, carrying the complex mantle of gender seemed preposterous, the designation “male” the linguistic equivalent of a false mustache fixed above his infant lip.
His lips, how barely pink they were, the pink of the rim of the sky at winter dusk. And their curl–in the way that the upper lip rose to peaks and dipped down again, twice, like a bobbing valentine; and in the way the lower bowed out, luxuriant, lush, as if sated already from a lifetime of pleasures–how improbably expressive were his lips.

Leah Hager Cohen begins the beautiful and poignant tale of family and loss which is The Grief of Others with this passage. It is the start of the description of a tiny child, destined from long before birth to the only the briefest of time with his family. Cohen’s novel is a gorgeous, yet simple and direct, tale of the simultaneous strength and fragility of human connection. It is told from the varying perspectives of the members of the Ryrie family and of a recently orphaned college student whose path accidentally crosses with theirs at a key moment in their lives. To immerse yourself in this novel is to face questions not only of the mortality alluded to by the title, but also of one’s own capacity for emotional fidelity, honesty, and responsibility. To engage with Cohen’s beautiful prose is also to face the devastating reality of the many paths we must choose in the small moments which make up our lives, some of which may carry us far afield, even as we may only be beginning to recognize the destination to which we want to direct our journey. Cohen doesn’t provide a pat and simple closure either, but openly admits that to anticipate with too much certainty where the paths we choose will take us is an act of hubris, and so we are left simply with open questions and a quiet glimmering of hope to connect us to the characters as the book draws to a close. And this makes the gently devastating novel all the more satisfying, somehow.

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