First Love by Ivan Turgenev

Oct 24, 2019 by

First Love by Ivan Turgenev. I enjoyed this book. First Love is my 10th Russian/behind the Iron Curtain novel to read since December, beginning with War and Peace.

A great final quote from First Love is this one, a summary about living, and an expansion on the American phrase, “Youth is wasted on the wrong kind.”

Oh youth! youth! you go your way heedless, uncaring – as if you owned all the treasures of the world; even grief elates you., even sorrow wits well upon your brow. …Perhaps the whole secret of your enchantment lies not, indeed, in your power to do whatever you may will, but in your power to do think that their is nothing you will not do; it is this that you scatter to the winds – gifts which you could never have used to any other purpose. Each of us feels most deeply convinced that he has been too prodigal of his gifts – that he has a right to cry “Oh, what could I not have done, if only I had not wasted my time.”

This is not a very long book. It may be read in one day, but you’ll not want to speed through its pages. There’s too much there you’ll want to think about and absorb.

This is not my first Turgenev book, I read Fathers and Sons not too long ago. This one, however, was recommended to me strongly by a young former Russian ballerina whom I met while sitting at the bar for dinner at the Eighth Avenue Tick Tock restaurant in New York City, Sept. 23, 2019.

Anastasia

Anastasia, the former Russian ballerina who insisted I read Turgenev’s novel First Love, a beautiful story about life in mid nineteenth century Russia.

Anastasia, who could speak very little English, was impressed with how many Russian novels I’ve read in the past 10 months. Ten of them now, one for each month. When she saw my reading list she was highly impressed but quickly typed out in Google translate that First Love is simply a beautiful book that I must read. I ordered it from Amazon between translations in our conversation.

Anastasia was so right, I hope you enjoy it, too,

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The Book of Dust

Feb 7, 2019 by

I read Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage:  last week and was told going in that there were things about the book that are not as good as his previous trilogy, but I’d seen a recommendation for this book regardless and had decided to give it a read.

To start with, Pullman’s fantasy work is not something I would normally read. It still is not.

The Book of Dust

Reading about Malcom and his daemon Asta was curious I will admit. The first few pages did, I must confess, however, draw me right in. But I have to say, from a writer’s stand point, at one point I began to wonder how burdensome the daemons must have felt–having to write about another character for every character–because in this version of the world, everyone living must have a daemon very, very near them and if they don’t, it’s supposed to be pretty draining.

My friend Tom at Interabang Books in Dallas said this book didn’t sell like publishers hoped it would. Not in comparison to the previous Dark Materials trilogy. Again, I’ve not ready anything else by Pullman, but I can say where I felt there were a few weaknesses in this story. I do not mean to be critical of Pullman. He’s published, I’m not, so there’s that. He also invested a lot of time to create, as have I, so I respect his work from that standpoint. This isn’t easy so anyone who gets their work on paper, heck, even into a computer from start to finish has made quite an accomplishment, so I refuse anymore to tear something to shreds. (Here are some thoughts that confused me, or I thought could have been stronger, how’s that?)

One happens when the baby Lyra is taken away by the Holy police to a nunnery that is supposed to be heavily guarded and damned near impossible for anyone to get in or out of. Malcom, Alice and their daemons float up to the place in their boat, find a drain with a metal cover, lift it, Malcolm and his daemon Asta float in, get past the second drain, waltz up a hall way, get stopped once, claim to have wet the bed, get sent to where they were going, lie down in an empty bed, wait for the head priest and nun to come in and argue about the baby, leave while the nurse in the room is snoring, and then sneak out with the baby unseen. What was supposed to have been impossible was done without any resistance whatsoever. Mkay.

There is a deluge in England and Malcom’s boat floats from Oxford to London, sometimes being able to float down specific streets, etc. That just seemed like too far a leap for me.

Then the book just leaves one sort of hanging with a whole bunch of characters. Yes, this is going to obviously be a trilogy, but there’s so much non-closure for so many of the secondary characters. They’re literally just left floating in the flood. I was always led to believe that even for a trilogy, you tied everything off, mostly, and didn’t leave things floating, pardon the pun.

I read the book from Sunday to a Wednesday. It’s 438 pages and all in all, it wasn’t a bad read. It wasn’t ridiculously hard to understand like Good Morning, Midnight or something like that, which the local book club has been reading. Talk about a nutty book…..

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Crime and Punishment

Jan 17, 2019 by

Crime and Punishment

Reading Dostoevsky’s classic novel Crime and Punishment last week has drained me. I didn’t realize it was taking so much out of me until, well, until I finished it and started trying to read something else as of Sunday of this week. Monday of this week. Tuesday … you get the idea. It’s Thursday and I have yet to get into another reading of fiction. I’m thumbing through Anne Lamott’s 1994 book on writing, Bird by Bird, but I’ve only managed to get about 50 pages into it even. 

It’s the middle of January, to establish a record, and I’ve begun to revise The Voodoo Hill Explorer Club once again. This will be the third? perhaps the fourth revision. I’m also working closely with Jen Manuel’s reimagining online course as I go. Right now I’m on the lesson where she’s encouraging me to understand reimagining the “heart” of my story. This is where I’m focusing on my lead character’s “wants,” but as importantly, his “yearnings,” and when you put these two aspects together: where Kirk Carson is clearly aware of what he wants and can’t quite put his finger on his yearning, well that deeply enriches the heart of the tale.

Looking at Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov clearly didn’t want his sister to get married to Luzhin, but his yearning, as a mad man, ran far deeper. He learns in the end, in the very, very end that his pride and separation from society isn’t what he has chalked it up to be and in the end gives that up.

I am not writing the follow up to a Dostoevsky novel. But I have learned so much in having read the last 101 novels. So far I’ve read five of my next 101 books. I’ve said before all that reading has changed who I am as a writer.

Now that I’m revising, looking at what I have written before, I am embarrassed at what I have on the pages. What I have submitted to agents and said, “This is ready.” Because it is not. It wasn’t. I can see that now.

I’ve learned something important.

And that’s the good thing about writing and reading. We get better every day. Anne Lamott says she gets asked by students, “How do you get better at writing?” She says the best way to show students, and it often makes them frustrated, is to pick up a yellow writing pad, pretend she has a pen in her hand, and begin to pretend she is writing on the page. That’s how you become a better writer. You write. But just as important, you read. And read. And read. And read. And write some more.

And the way you make your drafts better? You revise. And revise. And revise. That doesn’t mean you change a comma here, and a word there. Fix the spelling on this page.

No, you reimagine what you’re trying to say, and you say something else entirely. That’s revision. Jen Manuel says, “Re Imagine.”

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War and Peace

Dec 26, 2018 by

My daughters gave me a copy of the 1,358-page version of Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace for my birthday in early December. I began reading it on Dec. 7 and finished seventeen days later on Christmas Eve.

Considered the best novel ever written, I shall not ever disagree with this assessment. War and Peace is the most profound book I have read in dealing with the human condition and with Tolstoy’s discontent and outright contempt for the oversimplification of journalists and historians. In fact, it was these parameters that he sought to overcome in writing this book. In his research and own experiences in battle, he saw that far too much was eliminated in the reporting and recording of journalism and history for them to be even close to accurate, so he set about to writing this book, which he did not consider to be a novel–for it does not really have much of a begining, middle or end–in an effort to tell the fullest story as possible about the Napoleonic wars.

The beauty in this book is in the depth of the writing, and yet the simplicity of it as well. As daunting as it may seem to pick up a 14-hundred page book, it flows like water flowing from a stream or a tap in your kitchen. And while there are in fact about one hundred characters within the work, once you lock on to Pierre, Natasha and Prince Andrey, all the rest of them essentially revolve around these three and then criss-cross because these three are intertwined with each other. Pierre and Andrey are best of friends. Pierre has known Natasha since she was little. Andrey becomes engaged to Natasha, whom she in part knows through Pierre. Add in support characters around those three and you have the other hundred or so, including Napoleon and Russia’s Emperor Alexander I.

There are descriptions of great battles from 1807-1812. There are love stories. There are stories of hardship and strife. There are stories of death and suffering. There are explanations about how historians got things way wrong. There are glimpses into the spectacle of Russian high society and its aristocracy. There is even a dual for honor. All are explained and told with the simplicity noted above so one who is reading feels immersed in the scene and empathetic to the characters looming large.

Count Pierre Bezukhov

Pierre Bezukhov, the main protagonist of the work, and I, seem to have much in common. Nasty marriages that left us in emotional and financial tatters not necessarily of our own fault, a longing to help others no matter the cost or consequence to our own selves, and the quest for knowledge, to right our own wrongs and to leave the world a better place.

Pierre was a trusting soul and got taken for a ride by many. He comes out okay in the end though.

Last week I saw my pain doctor. I’m down 26 pounds now since October, largely due to meds, but I’m also trying. As I was leaving, my doctor told me when he was younger, after one of his first heartbreaks, someone had told him that the most important thing in life isn’t money or property or anything of that like. “The most important thing in life is your health,” he said. “If you have your health, all those other things can get taken care of.”

That isn’t necessarily how Pierre lived his life, but as the war turns in 1812 and the French are retreating from Moscow, Pierre has epiphanies about life and living and he becomes a new man.

Two hundred years later, and a year or two plus, I’ve been learning as well, after so many hardships that the things I have had done to me, and the things I have caused or walked into, while they have affected me in ways that may never stop, they can only dominate me if I let them. And I am tired of giving others power over me when I should not. Even if it is just a memory at this point.

There are still those out to get me, those who think they can ruin me. I think that boat sailed long ago. The only way for me to go at this point in life is up, so knock yourself out trying if you feel so low as to try. You’re wasting your time.

I have recommitted myself to God and to using every day the rest of my life to working to his glory, to getting myself healthier. Despite my continued back and leg pain, Crohn’s, and whatever else is going on inside me, I’m still fighting. Yes, I go to Medical City of Dallas nearly five days a week it seems for one doctor’s visit or another, but I am doing so to get myself well. To find the cures to what ails me.

I am reading all the books I can to enrich my mind. I finished me goal of reading 101 fiction novels. Now it is time to start revising my novels again. But with more strength, more knowledge, more skill.

It is time to take back the life that has been stolen from me by others for whatever reason, to give back what is owed, to live out the remainder of my life on firmer footing and in the best health I can get to.

Sure, there are going to be those who seek to stand in my way. That is just human nature. I’m better equipped now than I was several years ago when so much of my world fell apart.

One of the greatest things I learned from Pierre in War and Peace is that while one is still living, there remains the chance to keep fighting for what is right, for what is best, and for the good of the world.

That’s exactly what I intend to keep doing.

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Reaching My Goal — 101 Fiction Novels

Dec 6, 2018 by

Heather Sellers’ 2007 writers’ guide Chapter After Chapter prods anyone interested in becoming a better writer to read 101 Fiction Novels. In December 2016, I set out to do just that, having suffered an injury that was keeping me from working like most, one that continues to plague me even today.

Heather Sellers’ Chapter After Chapter.

Other complications and illnesses have been added since, making working and concentrating even harder, but thankfully, I’ve been able to keep reading, and on Nov. 29th, I put down Javier Marías’ The Infatuations, book number 101, satisfied and fulfilled in a way I could not have imagined two years before.

You see, while I have been physically disabled the past two and a half years, I have been able to mentally travel around the world and through time through the power of fiction.

I’ve made a study of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe, the three geniuses edited and managed by Maxwell Perkins. Through them I’ve been bullfighting in Spain in the 1930s, been all over Italy and Europe during World War I, and Paris afterward.

Then through various authors I’ve been in Paris as the Germans invaded it during World War II, and in many ways I felt what it must have been like, to have gone from such heydays after World War I with the Lost Generation to the starkness of the Nazi invasions, their lists, the killings.

But I’ve also been to Australia for a road race around the continent in the 1950s with Peter Carey in his book A Long Way From Home, and returned to experience the power of Big Little Lies with Liane Moriarty; experienced The Plague in Africa via Albert Camus, a non-existent war in Africa during Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, and been to South America for a hostage situation via Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. (I’ll read  anything now written by Ann Patchett–Commonwealth was so good, too.)

I have been to Tennessee and South Carolina to figure out the mystery of the woman who stole river children in the 1900s for adoption in Lisa Wingate’s Before We Were Yours. (Lisa is under the impression US senators ride around in limousines all the time. Reporters should know better.)

My thinking about trees was forever changed by Richard Powers’ The Overstory, one of the most incredible books I’ve ever read. To think about living in the canopy of a redwood in Oregon for nine months, 100 feet off the ground. Something I’d never thought of, but might consider, given the chance and with better health. A wonderful, wonderful book that haunts me now whenever I see someone cutting down a tree because I know how long it takes for a tree to grow, the history behind it and how we snuff out a tree with a chainsaw and don’t give it a moment of thought.

Gosh, I’ve forgotten how many times I’ve been to England. Ian McEwan’s Atonement. What a great story about the power of love. Don’t forget to also read his On Chesil Beach. If you want to read some of the first murder mystery genre setting books, don’t forget John Fowles’ The Collector, who kidnaps a woman he fancies and drags her off to live in his flat north of London. The Lodger is another prolific book that brilliantly explores the murders surrounding the mystery of Jack the Ripper. Warlight, by Michael Ondaatje was also one of my favorites from my journey.

Then there are the books about the States. The Summer that Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel remains a favorite, a story about a boy who shows up in an Ohio town the summer of 1984 claiming to be answering an ad in the local paper calling on the Devil to present himself. Steven King’s The Outsider was something new for me. It wasn’t scary, but definitely a different read. Tommy Oranges’ There There shed new light on the Native American culture I did not know about. A.J. Finn and The Woman in the Window, Ottessa Moshfegh and Eileen and My Year of Rest and Relaxation, as well as Lauren Weissberger’s When Life Gives You Lululemons all gave me new perspectives about the modern woman.

Celeste Ng took me back to Ohio in Little Fires Everywhere, a very good book, and Rachel Kushner seemed to have much the same thematic in The FlamethrowersFac Ut Ardeat (made to burn); perhaps that theme was also being explored in The Summer that Melted Everything as well. Even Stephen King’s The Outsider.

Thomas Wolfe intrigued me for days with his You Can’t Go Home Again. The language and writing is beautiful.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. Funny, at times. But with an important message nonetheless.

Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin was strange to me at first, but I came to enjoy the writing once I got my bearings. The initial passages about the blind assassin himself, and the girl, were just strange, and I’ve found I’m not much for reading sci fi or dystopian nonsense.

I also flat out skip sections in books about explicit gay sex. Chloe Benjamin, Adam Haslett, take note. Your books were good, but I skipped large portions of The Immortalists and Imagine Me Gone and don’t think I missed anything, which means, those sections could have been left out (note to authors, agents and publishers). Those sections didn’t add anything. And in the case of Andrew Sean Greer’s book Less, once I learned that’s what it was, I’d actually ordered it from Amazon, I cancelled the order. I have no desire to read anything like that. Period.

I’ve read my share of spy novels: Daniel Silva’s The Other Woman, T. Jefferson Parker’s Swift Vengeance, Karin Slaughter’s Pieces of Her, and the over-hyped ridiculous Bill Clinton/James Patterson The President is Missing.

In Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone I spent time in Washington state and Oregon, and then the wilds of Alaska. This was not a great book by any means, but people recommended I read Hannah’s The Nightingale and I honestly believe it is the best book I’ve ever read. Goodreads has it rated at a 4.65 or something close and that seems to be the highest rating I could find. I highly recommend this book above all the rest. It is the one I described above as helping me understand what it must have been like when the Nazi’s invaded France in World War II. Maybe you should read some of Hemingway and Fitzgerald and their antics in Paris beforehand to learn about how gay and charming the city was 10 years before, that way you may get the full impact.

WHAT’S NEXT?

I’m going to start revising my second novel once again, with new knowledge.

And I’m going to keep writing.

It’s my 53rd birthday today and I’m getting a copy of War and Peace. I’m planning to also read Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov as a study in the next few weeks. I also need to finish Anna Karenina. The movie version is good, but not good enough.

I also have asked my girls for a series of books that PBS and my local book store, Interabang Books put together this summer–100 supposed best loved novels–that I intend to read. Some of them I don’t think belong on the list and won’t read, but a good many I will. Some I already have and just have never read.

The goal in all of this is to make me a better writer, but what it’s also doing is making me a better person. Opening my mind and horizons. Making me think and relaxing my soul. My body is not in a condition to do what it once was able. I’ve been doing all I can the past two and a half years to get help from doctors to get it fixed. In the meantime, I’ve been getting my heart, mind, soul and writing ready for when I am free to walk normally in the world again.

Two years later, that’s the greatest gift I can give myself.

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When Life Gives You Lululemons

Oct 1, 2018 by

When Life Gives You Lululemons

It was something out of character for me to read Lauren Weisberger’s When Life Gives You Lululemons, almost like picking up Cosmopolitan magazine I would think and reading it cover to cover. But several weeks ago it was big on the New York Times Bestseller Hardcover List and it spent several weeks there and in my quest to become a better reader, I bought it, read it, and studied the novel in hopes of it making me a better reader.

When Life Gives You Lululemons

To her credit, Weisberger at least knows that U.S. senators don’t ride around in limousines all the time like Lisa Wingate errantly seems to think in Before We Were Yours in modern day South Carolina.

Weisberger’s plot hinges on a senator being in cahoots with a local police department being able to frame his wife with DUI on a holiday and a Hollywood-based spin doctor being able to get her out of trouble after finding the senator’s wife and the spin doctor have a mutual friend in the suburbs of Connecticut. So the story winds around the three women who learn new things about themselves–mostly about the spin doctor who learns that she’s not a washed up spin doctor and that there is more to life than helping the country’s elite lie their way out of their sick problems. So much so that at the end of the book … well, I don’t do spoilers, you’ll have to read it for yourself.

When I read books I usually actively underline passages that I might like to come back to or find insightful about the human experience. I didn’t underline anything in this book.

This is/was not my genre and it does have a happily ever after ending. How nice. But if you want to read anything that’s based upon reality or anything that will advance the cause of humankind, this is not the book.

 

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