Rather than in the world itself

The older I get, the more I care about understanding history. I pretend like I have a basic grasp of the sequence of modern world events, but the more I read, the more I realize how facile and shallow my understanding has been. (This is always one of the great, humbling pleasures of reading, in my experience.) To this end, I have been enjoying two riveting books: The House of Government, by Yuri Slezkine, and Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe.

The House of Government is a saga of the Soviet Revolution, with an enormous cast of real-life characters presented in a Tolstoyan array, which makes for very enjoyable reading. This is a big benefit, because the book is nearly 1,100 pages long. You’re going to want it to be interesting and well-written. Slezkine is a talented historian, with a far-ranging grasp of his subjects, and a personal investment in the history, being a former Soviet himself (who is now a professor at UC Berkeley). I’m learning a lot, and my mistrust of socialism (and of the American young people who claim to love it) only continues to grow.

Say Nothing traces the forgotten murder of a widowed mother of 10 in Northern Ireland in 1972, weaving her tragic story into the overall scope of IRA activity during the Troubles (especially focused on some high-profile IRA actors, such as Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes). Aside from watching both seasons of the (excellent) show Derry Girls, I have been woefully under-educated about the terror and violence that afflicted Northern Ireland for decades, and this book is making quick work of amending this gap in my information.

. . .

“What if we got rid of television? The Internet? It would give us back our sense of place, but also our pain, and for that reason it’s a nonstarter, absence of pain being what we strive for and have always striven for, this is the essence of modern life. It’s why we live in the image of the world rather than in the world itself.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, “Idiots of the Cosmos,” from In the Land of the Cyclops

. . .

Moses is growing up quickly, and it is hard for us to believe, in the parlance of parents, that he will be 2 next month. He is chatty, curious, and bossy, and we love spending time with him in the garden or squiring him around to all of the local parks. His little curls are coming in quite nicely, too, which makes us loath to give him a much-needed haircut.

It will also be hard for him to believe that he’s getting a baby brother, due late in the summer. Sometimes, I confess, I also forget about this, but that’s becoming increasingly harder to do the larger I get. (And this is a boisterous dude, who is really enjoying kick-punching me as much as he can.)

Guion and I are both excited and frightened about having another baby, as the memories of the doldrums of newborn life are never far from me. (A friend from my writing group just reminded me of the existence of the witching hour, and I felt a fresh sense of panic about that happening again.) But there are sweet things, too, right? Like: Swaddling, putting them in baskets or other small receptacles, smelling their heads and skin, laying them down on the floor and watching them not be able to go anywhere, etc., etc. These are nice things about babies.

The little myth

Tree, from a recent hike.

On the precipice of 30, I am learning how to enjoy for enjoyment’s sake. L’art pour l’art.

In my youth, I felt I had to master anything I loved. But then, inevitably, my inability to master a thing diminished my passion for it. For instance, I loved ballet. I loved watching ballets, studying ballerinas. I took ballet lessons as a girl, and then, as a young adult, read Apollo’s Angels and took two beginner’s classes. I was, and still am, a terrible dancer. I am neither strong nor flexible and I have none of the free courage of movement that dancers require. My inability to master ballet itself dimmed my love of the art form. My ballet slippers collect dust in a drawer upstairs; I have forgotten all of the warm-up stretches I used to try every morning. It is a sad and frustrating conclusion to a brief flicker of interest. I never thought I’d become the next Margot Fonteyn, but I expected more from myself. I let myself down quickly.

I’ve been thinking about this false exchange in one particular realm lately. I have loved fiction since I was a child and still do. I read, on average, 50 to 60 novels every year. I study novelists; I drink up their Paris Review interviews; I am obsessed with the craft. And yet, despite all of this, I do not think I can write fiction. I keep trying and loathing myself.

Maybe I will get over it; maybe I won’t. Maybe I will finally write that thing that has been rattling around in my head for years. But either way, I am now repeating to myself the fact that love and mastery do not have to go hand in hand. I can love a cello concerto without ever having to pick up or know anything about the instrument itself. I can adore Italian film without having to learn key phrases. I can devour fiction without having to write a novel. It’s a little freedom I am giving myself.

“Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” — Robert Penn Warren

I do not think I will ever be in the mood to read Don Quixote. Can I take it off my to-read list, where it has been languishing for seven years?

A month after the rally of hatred, our parks are still in turmoil. The Confederate statues are covered up with gigantic trash bags in the morning; in the evening, an unauthorized group of men is tearing them down (which we witnessed last night, walking back to our car). Insipid tourists pose for photos, cheesing in front of the Lee statue, which irritates me to no end. (It’s such an insensitive and weird impulse, to want to pose with this now-infamous statue, which you never would have cared about, much less noticed, before a woman died in the street.)

One thing that has comforted me lately is the presence of excellent local journalists—namely, Jordy Yager. We heard him speak in a panel of other journalists on the topic of race and racism in the news, and I was so impressed with and grateful for his deep grasp of Charlottesville, its history, and the white supremacy that controlled and still controls so many of its institutions. There is still much to be done, but there are many who are fighting the good fight for the long haul.

70 years after Hiroshima

Hiroshima aftermath. Photo by the “Enola Gay” bomber pilot Paul Tibbets. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The second week of my home stay in Tokyo, in 2008, my host mother, Keiko, greeted me at the breakfast table with a large book. “Abby-san,” she said, “this is a book you should look at. It is important for you to see.” As I took it, I saw that it was a Japanese photographic history of Hiroshima, with horrific photographs and stories of the aftermath of the atomic bomb. I didn’t know what to say to her, except to bow slightly and say thank you and promise that I would read it.

My heart broke a little that she seemed to think that I had never seen these photos before or that I was unaware of what had happened in Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. The next morning, I told her thank you again for the book and said, gently, that we had seen some of these photos in history class in school. She raised her eyebrows slightly, in mild surprise, and then said, “Never forget them, Abby-san.” On this 70th anniversary of that evil day, I haven’t.

For those who are interested, John Hersey’s 1946 piece about Hiroshima in the New Yorker  is essential reading.

Top 10 Books I Read in 2011: I, Claudius (#10)

I, Claudius.

#10: I, CLAUDIUS, by Robert Graves.

Continuing my annual tradition of ranking the best books I read this past year, I am writing a series of posts about these 10 great novels. You can find the 2011 list and previous lists here.

I am afraid of ancient history and I haven’t read many of the “real” classics, except for a smattering of Aristophanes and Euripides and snippets from Plato and Socrates. I don’t think I’ve even read all the way through The Odyssey, which I say with great shame, since I studied literature in college. I’ve tried to get through it so many times. I just pretend like I’ve read it now and pretend like it changed my life and the way I view Narrative Form.

All that to say: I was hesitant about reading I, Claudius, Robert Graves’s “autobiography” of the Roman Emperor Tiberius Claudius. It’s about the Romans! It’s about history! It’s a super-thick historical fiction novel! I am more or less afraid of all of those things. I have been afraid of revisiting these territories, even though this book was warmly recommended to me from various sources (including the town crier/city troublemaker, RBS, who ranks Graves as one of the Greatest Writers Who Ever Lived).

I dragged my feet to this novel, but there it is: This book was genuinely delightful. I would recommend it to you. Even–or, perhaps, especially–if you aren’t much interested in ancient history. The novel is such a pleasant medium through which to learn things you should have learned in school.

Claudius is the unlikeliest emperor. He is born with a debilitating stutter; he is not the strapping warrior that his brothers and other male relatives turn out to be. Instead, Claudius is shy and bookish and falls to the background behind the lurid and bloody drama of his scheming and mostly evil family. While his ruling relatives plot and rage and kill each other, Claudius takes to the library. He becomes a historian and meticulously studies the machinations and advancements of Rome.

All of this learning comes to serve him well, for, through a series of unlikely (and true) events, Claudius becomes the emperor of Rome. By the time this happens, you as the reader feel relieved and proud–and slightly amazed that this meek but noble-minded man has survived his self-destructive family and risen above them all to rule Rome in the height of its greatness.

In the hands of Graves, an English poet and novelist, Claudius is a briskly funny but objective storyteller, as all good historians ought to be. In the delightful “meta” turn of this book, Graves himself turns out to be a meticulous historian writing of the meticulous historian. After I finished this book, I was compelled to go find out if all of these stories were true. I spent the better part of an hour discovering that I, Claudius could indeed be a believable “autobiography” of this unusual emperor. The novel is long, but it is not tedious. The Roman royal family has enough drama to make The Sopranos look like childish amateurs. I learned a lot about this period of history that I previously feared and thoroughly enjoyed myself in the process. I recommend Claudius without reservation.

Honorable Mentions for Best Fiction I Read in 2011

I read a lot of books this year, and it was extra-difficult to winnow them down to just the 10 best. Here are a few that almost made it into the top 10.

11. The Virgin Suicides, Jeffrey Eugenides
12. A Visit from the Goon Squad, Jennifer Egan
13. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
14. Midnight’s Children, Salman Rushdie
15. Sleepwalker in a Fog, Tatyana Tolstaya
16. Super Sad True Love Story, Gary Shteyngart
17. Diary of a Mad Old Man, Junichiro Tanizaki

All stories go wrong

Click for source.

On Being Asked to Write a Poem for the Centenary of the Civil War
By Maxine Kumin

Good friend, from my province what is there to say?
My great-grandfather left me here
rooted in grateful guilt,
who came, an escaped conscript,
blasted out of Europe in 1848;
came, mourned by all his kin
who put on praying hats
and sat a week on footstools there;
plowed forty days by schooner
and sailed in at Baltimore
a Jew, and poor;
strapped needles up and notions
and walked packaback across
the dwindling Alleghenies,
his red beard and nutmeg freckles
dusting as he sang.

There are no abolitionists in my past to point to.
The truth is that this man,
my only link with that event,
prospered in Virginia, begat
eight young and sewed eight years
on shirts to get them bread.
When those warm states stood up to fight,
the war made him a factory
in a pasture lot where he sat,
my part-time pacifist,
stitching uniforms for the Confederates.

The gray cloth made him rich;
they say he lived to lose it all.
I have only a buckle and a candlestick
left over, like old rhetoric,
from his days to show how little I belong.
This is the way I remember it was told,
but in a hundred years
all stories go wrong.

Monday Snax

Late Monday Snax!

People we saw (click on thumbnails to enlarge!):

As you can see, we had a wonderful weekend in North Carolina, even though it was jam-packed with activities and even though we didn’t get to see everyone we’d hoped to (e.g., Danielle, Meller, Logan, Sam, Carmen, Sarah, etc.). I feel absolutely exhausted today and felt like falling asleep several times today at work. The dark and stormy skies don’t help that feeling, either. But we’re home and happy to be back even though we miss everyone dearly.

Snax as a garnish around a stuffed swan:

Shaun and Ann-Marie’s Engagement Shoot. We got to spend a handful of time with Shaun, one of G’s best friends, and his utterly fabulous, funny, and beautiful Aussie fiancee, Ann-Marie this weekend. They just got their engagement photos back and I think they are just perfect! Can’t wait for their wedding in August! (Sarah Der Photography)

Mixed America’s Family Trees. This is such a fascinating feature from the NYT: A series of interactive family trees with photographs from families with mixed racial heritage from across the country. I was really into genealogy in middle school. If I had to take a stab at my multicolored leaves, I think my mix is predominately Irish-Scotch-Dutch. How about you?

Daddy-O. I miss my dad. I love this photo of him and Dublin. (Como Say What?)

Leaving Tokyo. These photographs of pregnant women and families with little children fleeing the Tokyo area are so heart-wrenching to me. The children look so frightened and serious. I think about Japan almost every day and I can’t get the Japanese out of my mind. (Tokyo Photojournalist)

Having a Dog Makes You Exercise More. Reason #3,408 why I NEED a dog. (We can give up online shopping, but we cannot give up NY Mag.) (New York Magazine)

50 Photos of Basset Hounds Running. This is absolutely and gloriously grotesque. If this isn’t proof that a Basset Hound is a really, really cruel way to breed an animal, nothing is. (Best Week Ever)

Sequinned Sewshi. Tiny, crafty things like this usually annoy me, but I have to admit that these hand-sewn sushi bits are pretty adorable. (Lobster and Swan)

Belle Sue. Dreamy, peaceful film photographs by Belle Sue. (Miss Moss)

15 Totally Surreal Vintage Ads. I think “totally surreal” is a bit too nice. “Extremely creepy” seems to fit better. (Flavorwire)

For the novelists

The Curtain

A consoling thought for the novelists, from Milan Kundera’s The Curtain, which I have just finished:

Applied to art, the notion of history has nothing to do with progress; it does not imply improvement, amelioration, an ascent; it resembles a journey undertaken to explore unknown lands and chart them. The novelist’s ambition is not to do something better than his predecessors but to see what they did not see, say what they did not say. Flaubert’s poetics does not devalue Balzac’s, any more than the discovery of the North Pole renders obsolete the discovery of America.

It reminds me somewhat of T.S. Eliot’s argument in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” We stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us, and yet we hope to see something different.

On an unrelated note, I have started on My Life List #30: Memorize an entire New Testament letter (that’s not Jude or Philemon). I chose 1 John, which is a legitimate book; it has five full chapters, and possibly THE most difficult first sentence ever to memorize. Sheesh.