Dreams or Nightmares? Karen Thompson Walker & Friedrich Gorenstein

Some books are popular, others unknown.  Karen Thompson Walker’s new science fiction novel, The Dreamers,  has received almost too much attention, while Soviet writer Friedrich Gorenstein’s grim  Redemption has received too little.

One is a dream, the other a nightmare.

I looked forward to The Dreamers because I loved Walker’s graceful first novel, The Age of Miracles, set in California in a  near future where the rotation of the earth has slowed. Time is unpredictable:  the 24-hour day is a thing of the past.  The adult narrator, Julia, tells the story of the first year of the catastrophe from the perspective of her 11-year-old self.

Walker’s second novel, The Dreamers, also has an eerie, hypnotic mood. It is reminiscent of Saramago’s Blindness:  when a sleeping sickness breaks out among a group of college freshmen, the town is quarantined. The infected patients have unusual REM activity and frighteningly realistic dreams.  After the hospital fills up, new patients  are housed in  camps and libraries.  People are afraid of being rounded up.

Although The Dreamers is billed as an adult novel, it has the simplicity of a Y.A. book.  Most of the characters are children and teenagers. Two college students escape quarantine and roam from deserted house to deserted house before deciding to help with the sick at the camp;  a couple worry about their baby but are prevented from leaving town (along with thousands of others) by the military; and a survivalist father falls ill, leaving his two girls to fend for themselves with his basement bunker of supplies.

The Dreamers is a cozy catastrophe, a distant, less dramatic descendant of John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and Doris Lessing’s Memoirs of a Survivor.   One eerie scene is worthy of the masters:  a student awakens after months to find she has given birth to a baby girl.  She is inundated with grief, because she had dreamed a whole life in which she had raised a son and was finally old.  How can she live without her son?

The ending is anticlimactic, though.

It is a  good weekend read.  An escape from winter!


Nabokov repudiated Soviet literature. I often agree.  Much of it is badly-written,  as well as painful.  The purges, the violence, the informers, starvation, lying, censorship etc., etc.,  can topple the sturdiest narrative.

Columbia University Press recently published the first English translation of Friedrich Gorenstein’s Redemption, which was written in 1967. Gorenstein, a Soviet Jewish author, left the Soviet Union and moved to  Berlin to publish his work.

This novel is historically important, but, alas, was not my kind of thing.

I found the writing very rough, and have no idea whether it’s Gorenstein or  the translator Andrew Bromfield.  Sometimes it is Bromfield.  I tired of awkward sentences like the following:  “For the first time in many months, Sashenka fell asleep calmly on that night, beside Oksanka, who was sleeping, pink from her bath; and for the first time, Sashenka dreamed calmly and clearly of her beloved.”

The book centers on Sashenka, a stupid, vicious 16-year-old girl who, after quarreling with her mother, who works as a dishwasher, reports her to the authorities for stealing leftover food from work.  Her mother goes to prison. Sashenka doesn’t give her mother a thought.  And even after seeing atrocities, after working with a team of people who dig up bodies from mass graves to be carted away to a different site, she cares only about her new boyfriend. Eventually she has a baby, but she doesn’t change:  near the end of the book she threatens to report a professor and his  wife as enemies of the state.

What a terrifying, dangerous time!

I disliked this book from start to finish.  Why did I finish it?

Tempus Fugit! Seneca and Self-Care

Tempus fugit.   Do you lament the paucity of time?

The Stoic philosopher Seneca can advise you on the practice of two trendy movements, the pursuit of “mindfulness” and “self-care.” He vigorously reminds us  that it is important to take time for ourselves.

In the philosophical treatise, De Brevitate Vitae (On the Brevity of Life), Seneca says that life is not short:   the problem is that we waste our time.  “How much time has been stolen by a creditor, how much by a girlfriend, how much by a patron or client, how much by marital strife, how much by the chastisement of slaves, how much by running to and fro?”

He says that men hang on to their property and fight those who encroach, but they do not value their time.  “No one is found who wishes to divide his money; but with how very many people does each person share his life!  We are parsimonious with money, but when it comes to the throwing away of  our lives, we are extravagant–and this is the one case where the desire to be thrifty is creditable.”

On a much cruder level, we enthusiastically agree.   I’ve read many well-meaning but frenetic articles on how to read more books , or take more steps, or relax with a new skin-care regimen.    And I’m all for these things!  But it often involves entering data on phones. Unplugging from electronics is one of our biggest challenges.  We need to slow down, sit still, and read Seneca.

Seneca is simple and clear, and his philosophy can be life-changing.  He was a great Roman thinker, Nero’s tutor and political advisor, a playwright, philosopher, and writer of fascinating letters.

So enjoy!  On the Brevity of Life is only 22 pages.

(N.B. The translation of the brief excerpts from the Latin is my own.)

Snowfall in the City and Angel-Headed Hipsters

After the snowfall.

“To help ensure that sidewalks are safe during the winter, City ordinance requires residents to remove snow and ice from sidewalks within 48 hours following the end of the snowfall.”–City Ordinance

I am a fan of the city ordinance.

The first winter we lived here, there was snow on the ground from December through March.  It was so icy that one day I had to crawl up  a hill to work.

This winter it has been “Hello, Global Warming!”   We didn’t have our first snowfall till Friday night.

‘Faster Grace, it’s gaining on you!’

The middle-class and working-class hustle out with snow blowers,  the hipsters (and we) use eco-friendly shovels.  Trust me: even in boots, you cannot walk safely on sidewalks buried under snow.

But there are reprobates.

Yesterday, forty-four hours after the snowfall, I  donned long underwear, heavy jeans, turtleneck, sweater, coat, and boots and took a walk, with R.E.M. blasting on the headphones. It was beautiful until I  turned a corner  into a revolution of snow ordinance-defiance.  I hobbled and slipped in the snow until I turned on a clear side street.  But in front of the last three lots on the street, the virgin snow was eerily heavy.   SOMEBODY  must have had a Netflix binge! Or perhaps they were waiting till Hour 47.

Clearing the snow is a community effort.  The neighbors sometime do the whole sidewalk . They even do the driveways sometimes.  That is valiant!

I don’t know the  people who don’t shovel.  Are they ill?  Old?  Depressed?  Exhausted?

It’s information somebody should have, because they need help. But perhaps they don’t want it.  You don’t want anybody knocking on your door.  It’s a city ordinance, not Russia!

They  have the right to be defiant–until the city fines them.  And I have to assume that they’re not going to penalize the sick and helpless.  But what do I know?

What to Do with Paper: Books, Letters, and Other Archives

A few years ago we “decluttered.”  We cleaned the sock drawers, threw out  threadbare T-shirts (Don’t Fall Run, ’79; a faded Book Woman; and a vintage Kliban cat), and junked old blenders and other appliances we had dumped in the basement.

Marie Kondo, the Japanese tidying-up guru who inspired decluttering, recently alienated book lovers, though.  On her new Netflix TV series,  she advised two writers to weed their bookshelves. She asked, “Will these books be beneficial to your life moving forward?” And her advice sparked a Twitter fest, or do I mean a Twitter war?

Marie Kondo recommends weeding books.

Culling a collection doesn’t sound radical to me: librarians at public libraries do it all the time. The five-year weeding policy at our public library is distasteful to me, but fortunately librarians at university libraries take old books seriously, and owners of used bookstores hoard.

I hoarded my own books for years. That was before black mold and flash flooding attacked our house. Our tidily-shelved and punctiliously-catalogued books had to be stored in boxes while carpenters scraped away at mold that had grown BEHIND floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Needless to say, we did not dare restore the tall bookcases.  And so I discarded dozens of Viragos, NYRBs, genre books, biographies, crumbling diaries of Anais Nin, and 1990s fiction. What did I keep? Penguin classics! (And a slew of other important stuff, of course. Our bookshelves are still bulging.)

And then a flash flood wiped out the files in our basement. (Thank you, global warming:  our state now has a Living with Flooding program.)  Decades of greeting cards and letters from friends—all gone! Correspondence was an important part of my life until email took over.  It’s not as though this archive of letters meant anything to anyone else, but I wasn’t ready to part with it.

An article in USA Today made me especially unhappy about the loss of my letters.  Apparently the post office handled “2.1 billion fewer letters in 2018 than the previous fiscal year. Online billing is a major cause of the downward trend in letter volume..”

And our post office is no longer open on Saturday!  That was a shock to me.

Everything changes, and there’s no use obsessing about it.  But I plan to hang on to the very few letters I continue to receive.

By the way, I enjoyed Lory’s post about Marie Kondo at the new blog Entering the Enchanted Castle.  Here is the link.

My Mother’s Book Club: “Meet Me in St. Louis” or “Tammy out of Time”?

I am the founder and sole member of My Mother’s Book Club.  It’s nothing like Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine: it’s  a way to commune with the dead.  Once a month I plan to read one of Mom’s favorite old books.  It’s not quite a seance, but it helps me feel closer to her.

As a young woman I couldn’t wait to leave my hometown.  My husband and I moved to an ugly  polluted city, where there were job opportunities.  When we returned to the sunny midwest, I appreciated my willful, confident mom.  It was she who raised me to be obstinate, imaginative, and an avid reader.  She bought me books at the grocery store (remember Whitman classics?) and at downtown bookstores (Nancy Drew and E. Nesbit).  She let me take a sick day from school so I could finish The Lord of the Rings.

She was a film buff, and preferred  books  adapted into movies.  And so I thought I’d start with Sally Benson’s Meet Me in St. Louis, which she kept on a shelf in the storage room for years. (I was the only one with a bookcase.)  But the book is out-of-print, and selling for $70 online.  What’s with that?

Instead, I am reading Cid Ricketts Sumner’s Tammy out of Time, which inspired the movies Tammy and the Bachelor and Tammy Tell Me True, starring Debbie Reynolds.  All right, I’ve never seen those two, but my mother took me at a very young age to see Tammy and the Doctor with Sandra Dee and Peter Fonda.

I’ve only read a few chapters, but the book is  very well-written.  Tammy has been raised on a shanty boat on the Mississippi, and has never even seen herself in a mirror (only in bucket of water). In the first few chapters, it’s Southern Gothic meets Our Mutual Friend. (Honestly, there’s an allusion to Lizzie Hexam and her father.) But I’m expecting comedy, because aren’t the Tammy movies about romance?

The ebook is only $2.99!

Lydia Chukovskaya’s “Sofia Petrovna”

I was raised on the canon of Dead White Males.   Not that this bothers me:   in the Greek and Latin classics, which I read for the joy of deciphering the languages as well as the exquisite literature, women writers are rare.  And few women writers were taken seriously until the 19th and 20th centuries.

But even in the 20th century, there was a paucity of women’s literature in translation.  I am a Russian literature aficionado, and am always on the lookout for women writers.  So I was fascinated to find the Soviet novella Sofia Petrovna by Lydia Chukovskaya, published by Northwestern University Press.

Written in 1939 but not published till 1962, it is the story of a widow, Sofia Petrovna,  who works in an office during the Great Purge.  In the preface to the novella, the author  Lydia Chukovskaya wrote, “The story now seeking the attention of readers was written twenty-two years ago, in Leningrad, in the winter of 1939-1940.  In it I attempted to record the events just experienced by my country, my friends, and myself.”

Sofia Petrovna  lives for her son Kolya, a brilliant student who becomes an engineer.  But after her  husband dies, she takes a typing course, and then finds work at a publishing company.  She is smart and efficient, and soon she is in charge of the typing pool. She loves the administrative work.  And she and the best typist, Natasha Frolenko,  become fast friends:  they gossip over meals at Sofia Petrovna’s home, which  consists of one room in a large apartment occupied by multiple families.

Lydia Chukovskaya and her daughter in the 1940s.

Sofia Petrovna is a novel reader, not interested in the news.  She is barely aware of the purge until the kind director of the publishing company is arrested.  And then her son, who has moved to another province, is arrested and accused of being a terrorist.  Sofia Petrovna is sure it is a mistake, but spends her days in long lines waiting to find out where her son is. She even writes three letters to Stalin, and is surprised that he doesn’t write back.   And one day in line she meets the wife of her former boss, who is being deported with her daughter–and no one will tell her where her husband is, so she doesn’t know if she’ll ever see him again.

This sad and terrifying book is only 119 pages. It is all too easy  to identify with the heroine.

I read this in a single afternoon.

It is translated by Aline Werth and emended by Eliza Kellogg Klose.

When You Can’t Get Enough Jane Austen & Literary Links

When you can’t get enough Jane Austen, you turn to essays and criticism.  I just read a splendid essay at The Silver Petticoat Review, “Anne and Catherine at 200: Celebrating Two Centuries of Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.”  Somehow I missed this anniversary last year. Here is a brief excerpt from The Silver Petticoat Review.

Six months after Jane Austen’s death, the first book EVER listing Jane Austen as its author was published. Persuasion and Northanger Abbey – a four-volume work – hit the market in late December 1817, although the title page lists 1818 as the publishing year. So here they were, two of Austen’s heretofore unpublished works, two completed novels by the master’s hand published together, and the first to ever openly name Jane Austen as their author. During her lifetime, all of Austen’s works were published anonymously, variously “By a Lady” or “By the Author of …”

In many ways, the novels are apt bookends to Austen’s authorship. Northanger Abbey is one of Austen’s early works, a novel she’d already been working on during the 1790s, the same period that she was writing Sense and Sensibility (her first published novel) and Pride and Prejudice (her second published novel). In fact, Northanger Abbey was the first novel Jane Austen submitted for publication back in 1803. She sold the publishing rights to a bookseller, who never did publish it, just sat on it, refusing to return it and threatening legal repercussions should Austen seek publication elsewhere. Eventually, the publisher relented and said that Austen could purchase the rights back. In 1816, her brother did just that, and Austen edited it extensively before her death, including changing the main character’s name from Susan to Catherine.

Virginia Woolf

2. If you’ve ever encountered readers who refuse to finish a classic because they disagree with a fictional character, you’ll want to read Brian Morton’s essay at The New York Times, “Virginia Woolf? Snob! Richard Wright? Sexist! Dostoyevsky? Anti-Semite!” His brilliant approach to opening readers’ minds to the literary past involves (mental) time travel.

He writes,

…The passion for social justice that many students feel — a beautiful passion for social justice — leads them to be keenly aware of the distasteful opinions held by many writers of earlier generations. When they discover the anti-Semitism of Wharton or Dostoyevsky, the racism of Walt Whitman or Joseph Conrad, the sexism of Ernest Hemingway or Richard Wright, the class snobbery of E. M. Forster or Virginia Woolf, not all of them express their repugnance as dramatically as the student I talked to, but many perform an equivalent exercise, dumping the offending books into a trash basket in their imaginations.

…I think it’s a general misunderstanding, not just his. It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.

Morton points out that we readers are the ones doing the time travel.  Do read the essay!

3.  Can you read 30 books in a week?  Here’s what happened when Lois Beckett unplugged for a week and tried to read the entire National Book Award longlist.   The essay was published at The Guardian, “Unplugged: what I learned by logging off and reading 12 books in a week.”