So Many Books, So Much Time!

If you  were a furloughed federal worker, you’d have loads of time right now.

According to an essay by Sarah Wendell in The Washington Post,  many of the 800,000 furloughed federal employees are spending it reading.

Wendell writes,

I started noticing the trend in my own home, where my husband, furloughed federal employee Adam Wendell, has been burning through books at a startling pace. It’s a good alternative to checking Twitter every 10 minutes to see if the shutdown has ended, he explains.

Wendell says her husband Adam  is powering though Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books, a fantasy/mystery series.  She also interviewed a furloughed meteorologist in Oklahoma, Barb Mayes Boustead, who recently finished  Tara Westover’s Educated, Sam Anderson’s Boom Town, and Elin Hilderbrand’s Winter in Paradise.

Wendell says library use is up in the D.C. area. “Arlington County has noticed a pronounced increase in its e-book and e-audio circulation from January 2018 to January 2019. While there’s typically a jump of between 1,000 and 3,000 titles, this year it’s closer to 12,000. ”

A furlough might send me into the arms of Commissario Guido Brunett, the hero of  Donna Leon’s mysteries.  A few years ago on PBS, Louise Erdrich, the novelist and owner of Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, recommended Leon’s series as unputdownable.

What would you read if you were on furlough?  Or what are you reading on furlough?  I’m turning on the comments just for today so you can recommend books to read during the shutdown!

By the way, I’m 100% with Nancy Pelosi.

Is the Grand Gesture Dead? Martha Quest and Me

Is the grand gesture dead?  Look it up online and it’s all about romance.  The search engine thinks it’s a Nora Ephron movie.

And that takes the “grand” out of grand gesture.

Grand gestures can be political or personal.  You can boycott grapes, or send flowers. But grapes are dusted with too much pesticide for my taste, and I like my flowers in gardens.

Did boycotting grapes from 1965-1970 make a difference? (Yes,  the grape growers finally signed labor contracts with the union.) Have you protested wars, marched for women’s rights (sans pink hat and GIRL POWER sign), and written to your representatives and senators about climate change? I have.  Do words and marching change things?  Sometimes.

In The Four-Gated City, the fifth novel in Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing’s Children of Violence series, the wars and chaos of the 20th century have shattered multitudes in Europe and Asia. Leftist characters march for nuclear disarmament in England and protest other threats to the planet, but are frustrated by their inability to solve problems.

The heroine Martha Quest and her friend/employer Mark  converse with an American named Brandon who has fled the McCarthy witch hunts. He says that people often confuse stating a problem with solving it.

He had joked at supper that in his own country, an outsider because radical, he had never felt more of an outsider than this week-end, surrounded by radicals who ‘believed-correct me if I’m wrong-that political protest is a question of stating a problem.

‘…I state something-1 think it’s achieved a change. Like the March-it’s a statement. “We don’t want war.” End of statement. But nothing will have changed tomorrow when everyone goes back to work.’

Sometimes making a statement does help: it brings people together to work for a cause.  But in recent years, aside from movements for social change like gay marriage, the fights for human rights have had little effect.

And the internet is a mixed blessing:  regional newspapers that covered state and local issues have gone out of business as people seek (often fake, and much less reliable) news at Facebook and other venues.  Twitter has  assaulted critical thinking and the grasp of complex language.  Take the Occupy Wall Street movement. The sweet but fuzzy-headed organizers tweeted and arranged camp-outs in parks but never did articulate any demands. They didn’t like Wall Street, or capitalism, or air pollution…but who does? The movement fizzled out. It lasted a few months—less than a year.  And nothing changed.

I have never had a strong grasp of politics, but I have made many personal grand gestures. When a snotty bookstore owner lambasted an excellent book editor, I defended him/her vigorously and said in future I’d buy my books elsewhere. Now that was a noble gesture, and did no harm.  But it was a gesture made by someone who reads too many novels.

The problem is, grand gestures can be grandiose, and they piss people off.

Take my grandest of grand gestures: I vowed in 1992 that I would quit my hated job if Clinton got elected. As one woman said of our toxic workplace, “Every day felt like a rape.” I was tougher than she, and able to cope with the constant sexual harassment, but it was grim. And I had to fight to get my final paycheck: there was much signing of papers and taping of conversations before I got the check that would pay my rent the next couple of months.

And, honestly, I was fragile for a while. But if I hadn’t made the grand gesture—if I hadn’t abruptly quit—I would have suffered more.

Some people, even some women, resented my quitting, perhaps because the consequences weren’t graver.

“You’ll never work again,” said a woman who’d sued this employer a couple of times and eventually been fired.

You’re working,” I pointed out.  And I suspect they were so thrilled I went my own way that they never gave me a thought again.

Now that I’m older, I’m astonished by my boldness. I find the patriarchy much scarier and more extreme now. But it’s quite possible that I was too naive back then to understand whom I was dealing with.  Now we’ve passed the political baton to younger feminists, and good luck to them.  Sadly, much of what we accomplished has been undone, and they must  fight for the same basic rights.

Tessa Hadley’s “Late in the Day”

This weekend I got lost in Tessa Hadley’s brilliant new novel, Late in the Day.  When I put it down to do housework I was unusually absent-minded. I flooded the dining-room table with teak oil as I pondered the relationships between the characters. If you know Hadley’s work you won’t be surprised, and if you don’t, Late in the Day is the perfect place to start.

This insightful, delicate novel is about four close friends in their fifties. It begins with a phone call. Christine and her husband Alex are listening to classical music in their London apartment when the landline rings. Christine answers, expecting to hear her mother or daughter.  But it is Lydia, her  best friend since childhood, calling to say her husband Zachary has died of a heart attack. And this is traumatic for all of them, since Alex and Zachary, both sons of immigrants, grew up together and were lifelong best friends. The two couples are very close.  And their adult daughters, too, grew up together and are close friends.

Relationships  are complicated, as you might expect. Are there too many pairs of best friends? Perhaps I liked it because it is so unlikely, and yet I didn’t doubt it for a minute. It’s all a bit incestuous, like something out of early Margaret Drabble. And the eroticism and sentence cadences are reminiscent of D. H. Lawrence. It’s The Waterfall meets Women in Love, for the middle-aged. It’s beautifully written, and it is also a page-turner.

Hadley goes back and forth in time to tell their stories. She is a master of this kind of storytelling—she  also does this in her superb  novel The Past. The characters in Late in the Day are much more sophisticated than anyone I know, but she makes us understand how they became these people.

In their twenties, Christine, a graduate student in English, and Lydia, a dilettante and femme fatale, met Alex at the university. He was their French teacher and a poet, and Lydia developed a crush on him. She was so obsessed with Alex that she more or less stalked him.  She got to know his wife, babysat for their child, and hung out at the bar where Alex goes. She dragged Christine along for credibility, so she wouldn’t look like a girl with a crush. But it doesn’t quite work out. Christine is impatient with Lydia’s obsession, and moody Alex has no sexual interest in Lydia.   Anyway, Christine marries Alex (after he leaves his first wife) and Lydia marries Zachary. And they are happy, and their lives interwoven.

Their professional lives are also fascinating. Christine gives up working on a Ph.D. on Christina Rossetti to become an artist. Alex stops teaching as an adjunct at universities and becomes an elementary school teacher. Zachary, by far the kindest, most charming character in the book, opens his own gallery in a church and displays Christine’s work. And Lydia slouches around being gorgeous without actually doing anything.  For me, Lydia is the problem–and yet I do know women like that!

Like Drabble, Hadley gives us lots of background on her complicated characters. Let me just say that their relationships become entangled after Zachary’s death. It will make you glad you’re unsophisticated, and at the same time you want to know these people.

Game of the States: The Three-Day Weekend Version

The hot ’60s board game everybody’s playing!

It’s a three-day weekend. Yes, another freezing-cold holiday to spend with loved ones.

There are, in my opinion, too many winter holidays. First there’s Christmas: OK, we enjoy that moderately. By New Year’s Eve, everybody is restless. Despite our grown-up status, there is regressive whining: “What can we do now?”

And then the three-day weekends start. First it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend. And then it’s Presidents’ Day weekend. Forget the people we’re honoring: long weekends aren’t always good for your mental health. Yes, experts say you get more family time, but whether that’s a good thing or not depends on the family, doesn’t it?

A friend and I made a pact that if things got too crazy we’d meet at the coffeehouse. We went, we saw, we conquered. The line was almost out the door. She sniveled, “I was literally moving a plastic truck across a ’60s board game when Josh threw a tantrum about the rules.”

Oh, lord.  Don’t get me started. Her husband Josh is forty, not four. In his defense, he was arguing with their four-year-old son. It’s not much of a defense.

As for me, I’d watched an episode of Tidying Up with Marie Kondo and then I’d cleaned the kitchen. And it turned out I was allergic to the strong cleanser, so my hands were red and bleeding. I decided not to go to the gym since my hands were open wounds. I could have placated my husband by pretending to go to the gym, but I’m neither four nor forty, so I told the truth: “I’m going to the coffeehouse.”

Tidying up with Marie Kondo

Did Milton-Bradley know that  Game of the States, a cute board game where you buy and sell “products” and haul them in plastic trucks from state to state, would cause such a ruckus? Did Marie Kondo know she was dooming me to eczema and Band-Aids?

I can’t take another holiday. Tomorrow I’m staying in bed.

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!

AND NOW ON TO SOVIET FICTION.

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?