Friday, February 28, 2014

March Madness Read-a-Thon

I just found a month-long read-a-thon at Cedar Station, and I think I'm going to participate.  I've fallen into a bit of a reading rut over the last ten days, and this is the perfect way to get out of it.  I'd like to complete 8 books in total.

First, I want to complete several books that I have begun over the last two months:


I'd also like to work on a couple of TBR books for that challenge:


Finally, I need to finish my Classics Spin book by the end of the month:

Monday, February 24, 2014

Reading Philip Pullman

In my reading life, I am like a golden retriever that gets distracted easily by any new object thrown down the hall.  In the midst of reading what seems like 39 other books simultaneously, I picked up The Subtle Knife, the second book in the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.  (Note:  I had a golden retriever for 12 years, and loved it like crazy, so please don't take what I just said as a criticism of golden retrievers; they simply can't help being distracted by new possibilities.)  I'm about half way through it, and for the first time that I can remember, the book actually matches what the blurbs on the back say:  this book moves at a "ferocious" pace. 

I've been struck by one thing in particular:  the fact that Pullman's writing in this second book shows confidence and a clear purpose.  It demonstrates, in short, a writer who has hit his stride in the middle of a trilogy.  What do I mean here? Certainly not that the first book, The Golden Compass, was a mediocre or chaotic book.  It was not; in fact, by the end it swept me along to the climax.  Instead, I sense a clear trajectory to the story now--I don't know the ending, but it's very clear that Pullman does, and as a result the story is crisp and fast paced.  The introduction of Will into the story as a companion to Lyra sets up the notion that there are multiple universes, separated by time, that exist simultaneously.  Access to them, at least at this point, comes from a window into a neutral world.  It reminds me of Connie Willis's novel Doomsday Book, another novel about Oxford and time travel.

Tolkien's Two Towers, the second in that trilogy, also reads briskly.  Perhaps it's the case that the second novel offers a writer more freedom.  The characters have already been established, the reader is hooked, and there's not the need to tie up all the narrative threads yet.  It offers the chance, in other words, to explore the narrative without the constraints created by having to complete it. 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Tire fires replaced by votive candles in Kyiv

In my last post, I expressed my fear that Euromaidan would not survive the onslaught of Berkut and militsia troops that had overrun Hrushevskoho Street and surrounded Maidan.  I thought it was over, and was grieving inside for the lost chance for Ukrainians to overthrow a thug government.

I was wrong to be so pessimistic.  I'm watching streaming video right now of Yulia Tymoshenko speaking to the crowd at Maidan, sitting in a wheelchair.  Even though I can't understand much of what she is saying, it's an incredibly powerful and moving scene.  Who could ever have thought, on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings, that we could be watching this on Saturday?  They stood their ground when their government labelled them terrorists and vowed to use any means necessary to clear Maidan.  The people standing in Maidan Nezalezhnosti stared down troops itching for sustained violence on Tuesday.  They stood their ground even as they saw their peers being shot and killed randomly by snipers on Wednesday.  In the end, they won, and now it's back to 2004 again:  Yulia Tymoshenko on the stage addressing people willing to give up their lives for basic rights. 

At this moment, Yanukovich has been stopped at Kharkiv airport as he was trying to flee to Russia.  His Interior Minister--the one in charge of the Berkut and militsia--has also been stopped at the border trying to flee.  Yanukovich's house has been invaded, and the public are seeing how he lived (including a gold toilet).  The police have disappeared from Kyiv.

It is a remarkable outcome, determined by incredibly brave men and women.  I hope that, this time, Ukraine will not slip backwards to the kind of government Yanukovich created in 2010. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Disturbing day in Kyiv

As I write this, police ("militia" and Berkut) have overrun the barricades on Hrushevskoho Street, and taken control of Ukrainian House on European Square once again.  The protesters had taken control of both in late January.  The convoy of buses carrying hundreds of Berkut troops is staged to move through the "checkpoint" established on Sunday on Hrushevskoho.  The Minister of Interior Affairs has promised to "clean up" Maidan tonight.  Euromaidan PR reports that police have surrounded Maidan on all sides.  It's hard to see how the Euromaidan movement will survive through the night.  If Euromaidan falls, Viktor Yanukovich and his police state win.

The script has played out exactly as some feared.  The opposition leaders agreed to clear Hrushevskoho for traffic to move again, and return four state buildings, including the Kyiv City Administration building.  One fear voiced at the time was that opening up Hrushevskoho would make it possible for Berkut buses to eventually drive down Hrushevskoho in large numbers and threaten Maidan.  The process of clearing the street included clearing huge piles of debris and the large ice field that had formed in the no-man's land between the police and the protestors.  As an obstacle, it was formidable.

The small opening that was created through the barricades Sunday was about 4 meters wide, but that was all the police needed today.  I watched a webcam live this morning as the police overran the barricades, using sheer numbers to push through the Euromaidan defense.  Control of Hrushevskoho also meant that the police had a clear path to Ukrainian House, and the manpower to capture it.

As it stands right now, a large crowd has gathered in Maidan, and from the stage the opposition leaders have urged Ukrainians to come to the Square.  Meanwhile, the Kyiv metro was shut down earlier this evening, making it difficult for people living in suburbs like Nivky and Sviatoshin to get there.

And if Maidan fails, what's next?

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Lean week

I had a slow week reading last week, and as a result, I've not finished any books for several days.  I'm trying to finish a couple of the big books that I had started in January, including the Evans book.  I also picked up (unnecessarily, but there you have it) Conrad's Under Western Eyes, which is on my Classics Club list.  I've pushed through a good bit of that, but then I got the second book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (even more unnecessarily) and started it.  So I'm all over the map right now. 

Monday, February 10, 2014

Classics Club Spin: Zamyatin's We

The number was posted on the Classics Club website today:  20.  That corresponds to Yevgeny Zamyatin's book, We on my spin list.  I'm looking forward to it.  I've read several utopian/dystopian novels, but this one I've neglected. 

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky's Autobiography of a Corpse

I wanted to love this book, really.  It's a collection of short stories written by a Kyiv-born author in the 1920s and 1930s, so the irrational side of me that wants to celebrate all things Ukrainian right now was prepared to drive this review.  Unfortunately, the uneven quality of the stories leads me to write a different kind of review than I had intended.

Krzhizhanovsky offers a number of interesting scenarios and ideas in the stories, but in several stories he doesn't develop them in a way that grabs the reader and keeps him or her interested.  The opening story "Autobiography of a Corpse" is a curious tale about a man who rents a small room and soon after receives a manuscript (left at his door anonymously) that is an autobiographical account of the life of the person who lived in the room before the current tenant.  The story works, primarily because Krzhizhanovsky creates an interesting tension between the tenant and the narrator of the autobiography.  Other stories in the collection don't work as well.  The premises of "The Runaway Fingers" (the hand of a concert pianist escapes from his arm and flees down the street) and "Yellow Coal" (a man discovers that anger can be turned into an alternative energy source) are intriguing, but not, in the end, compelling. 

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Tova Mirvis' Visible City

Tova Mirvis' new novel shows the reader New York City from a different angle:  we get glimpses into the unseen and hidden city.  Through the eyes of the novel's main center of consciousness, Nina, we see the lives of apartment dwellers behind the personae they take on for their daily confrontations with a chaotic, hostile city.  Nina spends much of the first half of the novel looking into the windows of her neighbors across the street and trying to imagine the lives they lead.  As the novel progresses, Nina moves from spectator to actor, but others explore what's hidden beneath the city's, and their own, exteriors.  Hidden and walled up spaces become the focus of attention, and Mirvis develops a picture of the city as a palimpsest.  As the cityscape evolves, it covers over what has been there, but fragments of the past are occasionally visible. 

Closed subway stations, for example, don't disappear, they are locked up and are transformed into time capsules.  These moments in the novel remind me, strangely, of the way the abandoned city of Pripyat in Ukraine, which housed the families of those who worked at Chernobyl, was frozen in time at the moment when the residents were evacuated after the meltdown.  To see the images of Pripyat is to see the outlines of Soviet life as it was in 1986.  When Jeremy, Nina's husband, sees the closed City Hall station, he, too, sees a snapshot of New York in the early 20th century.  These places may decay, but they continue to be part of the cityscape, however obstructed from view they might be. 

Mirvis is a sharp-eyed observer of city life, but more than this, she understands what I think is a fundamental truth about cities:  that there is not a unified idea of "The City," but rather 10 million ideas and definitions of the city.  In a passage where Nina and Leon, her neighbor across the street, are walking along Broadway, Mirvis explains this succinctly:

“They walked quickly.  Leon had no need to look at the signs to know which block they were on.  The Victoria’s Secret on 85th Street jarred with his inner map, and for those who’d lived here long enough, the storefront with the pink-and-white-striped awning and lingerie-clad mannequins would always be Broadway Farm.  All those who lived here crafted their own internal rendering of the city based on how long they’d been here.  He too carried his own version of the neighborhood—he’d grown up on the West Side and remembered when it had boasted one of the city’s highest crime rates” (37-38).

I grew up in Manhattan, and went to high school on the upper West Side.  Throughout my teenage years, I walked frequently through the spaces Mirvis describes. What I realized, as I got deeper into the novel, was that I was constantly comparing my own "internal rendering" of the city to the one Mirvis creates.  The results of the comparison reminded me that I'm not a "New Yorker" (and I think the novel implicitly challenges the idea that that category even exists), but rather a New Yorker from the 1980s and early 1990s

New York in 2014 is familiar, but much of it has been radically transformed and is unrecognizable.  The most obvious example is Times Square.  Someone who grew up in midtown Manhattan in the late 70s and early 80s, as I did, and returning to it for the first time in 2014, would see a space configured in a completely different way.  The sight of Toys 'R Us on 44th and Broadway is surreal and disorienting--can this really be Times Square?

But back to the novel.  Mirvis develops characters who are interesting and who we care about.  She describes the feelings of the people who inhabit the novel, and their encounters with New York, in a convincing way.  In this regard, the novel rings true.  My one criticism of the novel is that the circle of acquaintances, and the way they tie neatly together, feels contrived at times.  Individual New York streets and apartment buildings are indeed micro-communities, but I think the novel stretched this beyond what seems likely or possible.  

On the whole, Mirvis does an exceptional job of capturing New York City from the inside out.  It is a carefully crafted novel that is a delight to read.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Classics Club Spin List

This is my first time participating in the Classics Club "Spin," and below I've included my spin list.  It's pretty straightforward:  next week, the Club will pick a number between 1 and 20.  We then have to read the book that corresponds to that number on our spin lists by April 2.

1 Boswell, James The Life of Samuel Johnson
2 Bunyan, John Pilgrim's Progress
3 Dickens, Charles Great Expectations
4 Dos Passos, John Manhattan Transfer
5 Eliot, George Romola
6 Faulkner, William Absalom! Absalom!
7 Forster, E. M.  A Passage to India
8 Gissing, George New Grub Street
9 Gogol, Nikolai Dead Souls
10 Greene, Graham The Quiet American
11 Hawthorne, Nathaniel The Marble Faun
12 Heller, Joseph Catch-22
13 James, Henry Sacred Fount
14 Lessing, Doris The Golden Notebook
15 Mahfouz, Naguib Palace Walk
16 Steinbeck, John The Grapes of Wrath
17 Stendhal Charterhouse of Parma
18 Stoker, Bram Dracula
19 Trollope, Anthony Barchester Towers
20 Zamiatin, Yevgeny We

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Anatoli Rybakov's Fear

Fear is the second novel in the Anatoli Rybakov’s “Arbat” trilogy, and after reading more than 1,200 pages about these characters (Children of the Arbat is the first), I’m eager to read the third. 

What demonstrates Rybakov’s brilliance as a writer is the way he creates a story that moves along briskly, compelling the reader to push on, while simultaneously making us feel like the world is grinding to a halt for every character.  The reader feels trapped and suffocated while reading Fear.  At every turn, we feel the Soviet system blocking off another avenue that might have enabled a character to start leading a normal life.  We also come to feel, as we read, as if every conversation between every character is potentially the one that will lead to an arrest and ultimately either a prison sentence or death.      

Rybakov creates characters that we come to know well, and who we come to care about.  We want them to survive, to find a measure of freedom and relief from fear, and to have the luxury of imagining a long life.  But throughout, we know that can’t happen in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, and so part of the experience of reading the novel is trying to figure out not if, but for what, the characters will ultimately be arrested. 

Rybakov adds Stalin as a character; it’s an interesting experiment that works.  How can one imagine the workings of a mind like Stalin’s?  Not easily, of course, but the effort is worth making.  It brings out pointedly the utter lack of humanity in Stalin by showing him dealing with individuals—the manipulation, the complete lack of candor, and the clear sense that the slightest action or even movement can lead to one’s death.  (At one point in the novel, Stalin orders the execution of one of his clerks because he thought the clerk was scorning the way Stalin was treating a document.)

Fear is a grim novel, and there’s not much hope in the end.  Reading it in the 21st century, we know that WWII is coming, and that the Soviet world will get worse before it gets better after 1953, when Stalin dies.  Nevertheless, it’s a compelling, brilliant novel.

Winter's Respite read-a-athon final results

I finished strong this weekend, reading around 470 pages in Fear and a new ARC, Visible City.  I'm very pleased generally with the results of the week:

Total pages read:  680
Number of books finished:  0

I didn't finish either of the two big books I was working on, but I did get through about 500 pages of Fear.  I also read a 300-page chunk of Fear in one day (which is a lot of pages for me), and have had a very different reading experience with that novel.  It's a big Russian novel from the Soviet period, and there are lots of narrative threads to follow.  Reading so much of the novel in one day helped me piece together all the threads and their place in the larger narrative.   

The experience of this read-a-thon was really positive.  I was keenly aware late last week that I was not able to read much, and that the clock was ticking on the read-a-thon.  I didn't feel the time pressure in a negative way, but rather as a gentle prod to keep reading.  When the weekend came, I knew exactly what I was going to do:  read as much as possible.  Instead of getting distracted by watching live feeds from Kyiv, or watching a terrible Super Bowl, I spent most of Saturday and Sunday focused on reading.  That's where the longer read-a-thon was a good thing for me.  It gave me a clear sense of how to use my spare time this week, and as a result I wasted less of it.

I'm grateful to the truebookaddict for hosting this challenge.  It was great fun, and I look forward to the next one.  Actually, I would love to apply the same discipline of the read-a-thon week to every one of my reading week

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Last day of Winter Respite Read-a-thon

One day left! 

Saturday was a great day of reading--I pushed through a lot of Fear, and also started an excellent new novel by Tova Mirvis, Visible City.  I plan to write reviews of both in the next couple of days and post them here. 

Here's the rundown for the read-a-thon so far:
Totals through Saturday night
Total Books Finished: 0
Total Pages Read: 520

Total Books Read:  0
Total Pages Read: 110
Books Read Since Last Update: 0
Pages Read since last update:
What I'm currently reading: Third Reich at War; Fear

Total Books Read: 0
Total Pages Read: 160
Books Read Since Last Update: 0
Pages Read since last update: 50

What I'm currently reading:  Third Reich at War; Fear

Total Books Read: 0
Total Pages Read: 160
Books Read Since Last Update: 0
Pages Read since last update: 0

What I'm currently reading:

Total Books Read: 0
Total Pages Read: 190
Books Read Since Last Update: 0
Pages Read since last update: 30

What I'm currently reading: Fear

Total Books Read:0
Total Pages Read: 210
Books Read Since Last Update: 0
Pages Read since last update: 20

What I'm currently reading: Fear

Total Books Read: 0
Total Pages Read: 520
Books Read Since Last Update: 0
Pages Read since last update: 310

What I'm currently reading: Fear; Visible City

Total Books Read:
Total Pages Read:
Books Read Since Last Update:
Pages Read since last update: 

What I'm currently reading: