MIKHAIL AND MARGARITA, pp. 138 – 139 mentions Gogol

Loving this book because of all the writerly mentions. In addition to Bulgakov (Must watch the movie with Charlotte Rampling), there are Osip Mandelstam, Mayakovsky, Anna Akhmatova . . .

All tortured, sent into exile, heartbreaking. But at least their words survived.

On p. 138, there’s a mention of Gogol (Self has to type on the floor, sitting on throw pillows; sitting at a desk gives her hand and wrist cramps. But the other day, she noticed spiders crawling over her legs and feet and she’s like constantly on the alert with Off! spray).

p. 138:

In his later years, Gogol had become convinced that God had abandoned him. Tortured, half-crazed, he burnt his remaining manuscripts only days before he died. As though the promise of man’s redemption must perish with him. He claimed the Devil had tricked him into doing so. He’d been only forty-one.

p. 139:

In 1931 when Gogol’s body was exhumed he was discovered to be facing downward. The writer had had a terrible fear of being buried alive, so much so that he’d willed his casket be fitted with a breathing tube as well as a rope by which to sound some external bell if needed.

As the grimness gathers around Bulgakov, the novel can only get more depressing. But so far, self has been able to persist.

This novel won the 2017 First Novel Prize from New York’s Center for Fiction, “the only literary center in the United States devoted to the art of fiction.”

Kudos to Ms. Himes.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.


Reading Life 2016

October 2016

  1. Ghost Soldiers: The Epic Account of World War II’s Greatest Rescue Mission (history), by Hampton Sides
  2. A Short History of Women (novel) by Kate Walbert

September 2016

  1. The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine (nonfiction), by Ben Ehrenreich
  2. Brazillionaires (nonfiction), by Alex Cuadros

August 2016

  1. Northanger Abbey (novel), by Jane Austen
  2. Swimming Studies (memoir), by Leann Sharpton
  3. The Course of Love (novel), by Alain de Botton
  4. The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Sketches (travel book, poetry), by Matsuo Basho
  5. The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone (essay collection), by Olivia Laing

July 2016

  1. The Green Road (novel), by Anne Enright
  2. Girl Waits With Gun (mystery), by Amy Stewart

June 2016

  1. The Girl on the Train (novel), by Paula Hawkins
  2. My Brilliant Friend (novel), by Elena Ferrante

May 2016 Read the rest of this entry »

Battle Is Joined! The Battle Between the King of the Bulgarians and the King of the Abarians

Last night, self finished finished The Death of Ivan Ilyich and it was quite a letdown.

First of all, the hero dies.


It’s right there in the title, self!

Since the book she read just prior was Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, she is by now inured to all narratives on deaths and/or dying.

What self objected to was the reading of an entire Tolstoy story and finding herself not moved. Not in the slightest. And furthermore Tolstoy resorts to


a very time-worn device: the moral redemption of the hero, introducing a startling revelation an hour before his death. Which in no way made the work more edifying or redemptive and which had self going WHAT?

Ivan Ilyich realizes he should just give his family peace. By dying quietly. And with this realization, the character’s black fear of dying dissipates (Just in time, too, as he’s going to die whether he likes it or not. And, Tolstoy crisply informs us, in an hour)

This was one of the rare book purchases self has made in the last few months, and it was not cheap. But, such is her annoyance at all the eminent critics who pronounced this one of the greatest works of all time, that she’s decided she’ll leave it behind when she flies out of Los Angeles. It will be her small contribution to the intellectual enrichment of whoever picks it up next.

She then began the next book on her reading list, Voltaire’s Candide (Self travels everywhere with at least three books in her suitcase. In case she finds herself out of reach of a decent bookstore. She’s a regular Girl Scout when it comes to being prepared)

This book is the complete opposite of Tolstoy’s. It is flat-out satire. The central character is a robust (and dim-witted) lad named Candide. He is a servant enamored with his employer’s 17-year-old daughter. The employer gets wind of the servant’s amorous intentions and of course does the right thing: he fires Candide.

Then Candide winds up encountering an army and in the worst case of mistaken identity ever, the soldiers force him to run a gauntlet, not once but twice, and finally when Candide’s back is flayed open like a gutted fish, he is pardoned by the King of the Bulgarians. And, what great good timing, the King of the Bulgarians is about to engage in war with the King of the Abarians, at which point Chapter 2 ends and Chapter 3 begins thus:

Nothing could be so beautiful, so smart, so brilliant, so well-drilled as the two armies. Trumpets, fifes, oboes, drums, cannons formed a harmony such as was never heard even in hell. First the cannons felled about six thousand men on each side; then the musketry removed from the best of worlds some nine or ten thousand scoundrels who infected its surface. The bayonet also was the sufficient reason for the death of some thousands of men. The whole might well amount to about thirty thousand souls. Candide, trembling like a philosopher, hid himself as best he could during this heroic butchery.

Well, well, well! Methinks Candide is not as dim-witted as he first appeared!

Stay tuned.

Ivan Ilyich and the Servants

Dying is not a peaceful process. Ivan Ilyich’s mind is full of anguish and despair. His most meaningful interactions, during the last few days of his life, are with the servants. His wife sleeps in their bedroom. There is a basic incompatibility in this marriage, and after reading Tolstoy’s short story self thinks there is nothing more awful than being sick when one is surrounded by an indifferent family.

About the wife:

“Everything she did for him she did only for herself, and she said to him that she was doing for herself that which she was in fact doing for herself, as if it was such an incredible thing that he woud have to handle it inversely.”

“His daughter comes in to see him, just before she, her mother, and her fiancée leave for the theatre. She comes “all dressed up . . . Strong, healthy, obviously in love, and indignant at the illness, suffering, and death that interfered with her happiness.”

Ivan Ilyich is afraid to be alone.

The servant, Pyotr, has left him to get some tea.

“Ivan Ilyich, left alone, moaned not so much from pain, terrible though it was, as from anguish.”

Ivan Ilyich wishes that the process of dying could end sooner. But in the next moment:

“No, no. Anything’s better than death!”

How in the world can self get past the death of Ivan Ilyich?

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.


The Bureaucrat Ivan Ilyich Learns He Must Die

Ivan Ilyich was a man who derived the greatest pleasure in life from routine: the routine of work, mostly.

He didn’t know he was dying until his colleagues began to have strange expressions on their faces as they interacted with him. Some of them looked shocked, some of them looked pitying.

One day, he closeted himself in his bathroom, looked at himself in the mirror, and could deny it no longer: he did indeed have the look of a man who was suffering from a grave illness. In fact, he was dying.

p. 71 of the translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (Vintage)

  • Lately Ivan Ilyich had spent most of his time in these attempts to restore the former ways of feeling that had screened him from death. He would say to himself: “I’ll busy myself with work — why, I used to live by it.” And he would go to court, driving away all doubts; he would get into conversation with colleagues and sit down, by old habit absentmindedly, pensively glancing around at the crowd and placing his two emaciated arms on the armrests of the oaken chair, leaning over as usual to a colleague, drawing a brief towards him, exchanging whispers, and then, suddenly raising his eyes and sitting up straight, would pronounce certain words and begin the proceedings. But suddenly in the midst of it the pain in his side, paying no attention to the stage the proceedings, would begin its own gnawing work.

And reading this reminds self all over again about Ying, who died in 2008, less than a year after she was diagnosed with leukemia.

She was worried because one of her maids — the nursemaid of Ying’s newborn daughter, Anita — had a persistent cough. Ying decided to have her tested for tuberculosis. Since her maid was being tested, Ying thought she might as well have herself tested, too. And that’s how they found she had leukemia.

Ying died in Tel Aviv on her 37th birthday. And never ever did self hear a word of complaint from her.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Russia the Surreal: “And the reason for my arrest is . . . ?”

“But I repeat:  the fact that the repressive system was legal does not mean that it was logical . . .  it was no easier to predict with any certainty who would be arrested in 1947 than it had been in 1917.”

—  p. 122 of Gulag:  A History, by Anne Applebaum

Believe it or not, self thinks reading this book is making her happier.  How can one NOT be happy when one thinks:  The worst that can happen to me today is that I will get a parking or a speeding ticket.  Or that the frost kills off a few of my plants.  Or that The Man will be in a bad mood.  What are these in comparison to being in a Soviet labor camp in the far north of Russia, putting in 12-hour shifts of hard labor and surviving on one meal a day?  At least, the things that currently annoy and frustrate me will certainly not result in death!

In front of each chapter of Gulag:  A History, the Pulitzer-prizewinning book by Anne Applebaum, there is usually a quote from a Russian writer.  The quote at the beginning of Chapter 7 is from Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope. Here is the entire quote:

We never asked, on hearing about the latest arrest, “What was he arrested for?”  but we were exceptional.  Most people, crazed by fear, asked this question just to give themselves a little hope; if others were arrested for some reason, they wouldn’t be arrested, because they hadn’t done anything wrong.  They vied with each other in thinking up ingenious reasons to justify each arrest.  “Well, she really is a smuggler, you know.” “He really did go rather far,” or “It was only to be expected, he’s a terrible man,” “I always thought there was something fishy about him,” “He isn’t one of us at all . . . ”

This was why we had outlawed the question “What was he arrested for?”

“What for?” Akhmatova would cry indignantly whenever, infected by the prevailing climate, anyone of our circle asked this question.

“What do you mean what for?  It’s time you understand that people are arrested for nothing!”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

The Reading List Morphs

Self has decided to forgo the pleasure of reading Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago, in favor of Gulag: A History, by Anne Applebaum.  Both are — gadzooks! — super-heavy books, and since self knowns nada about the gulag, she feels she’ll be better off tackling a straightforward history.

In the meantime, self finished David “Game of Thrones” Benioff’s novel, City of Thieves.  It was a very entertaining read.  Self knows that is a weird thing to say about a book written about the siege of Leningrad, but indeed it alternated scenes of horrific brutality with scenes of levity — sort of like the TV series “Game of Thrones”!  What a coincidence!

Over the weekend, she began reading a book called Remarkable Creatures:  Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origins of the Species, by Sean B. Carroll, a professor of molecular biology and genetics at the University of Wisconsin.

The book starts, naturally, with Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle.  In a notebook Darwin labeled “Zoonomia,” he wrote this:

Organized beings represent a tree irregularly branched some branches far more branched — Hence Genera. — As many terminal buds dying as new ones generated . . .

Wonderful, the way the notebooks show Darwin’s mind grasping for explanations of what he saw in the Galapagos!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.


Self finished reading it today.  Afterwards, early evening, she sat and watched two brown birds fighting each other over the bird feeder.


The last 100 or so pages of Sister Carrie were excruciating, because it took such a long time for Hurstwood to die.  First, the man became completely passive, child-like, wanting Carrie to cut down food intake so as to make it possible for them both to live off her salary as a member of a chorus line.  Carrie, being a creature of some perspicacity (and also beauty: almost all her advantages are somehow derived from that), loses all respect for him, but what makes the last fourth of the book so painful is watching how passively Hurstwood takes her rejection.  Thankfully, Carrie is not the brooding sort:  after she makes the decision to leave him, she doesn’t bother herself with thoughts of his fate.  (But, self couldn’t help wondering, what will happen when Carrie herself grows old?)  So we just follow along, watching Hurstwood’s descent.

At the same time that self found the disintegration of Hurstwood’s personality truly appalling, she couldn’t look away.  She had to read all the way to the bitter end.

Self tends to read the classics at odd moments in her life.  For instance, soon after she’d started in the Stanford Creative Writing Program, she decided that she must read Lord Jim and Moby Dick, while everyone else was reading Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor.  Then, while she was pregnant, she remembers reading (and loving) War and Peace and wanting to name son after Prince Andrei Bolkonski. Then she carted along to Stanford Hospital, where she delivered Sole Fruit of Her Loins, Bleak House. In retrospect, what woman in her right mind chooses to read Bleak House at such a moment?  Just as well she had no visitors.  She was able to read for two whole days.  The nurses simply could not believe how self could read with such dedication.  Later, while son was a mere infant, she remembers reading (and loving) Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.  She gave a copy to son when he was 12, but though appropriately grateful, he declined to crack the cover.  It sits now, in virginal pristine condition, on a shelf in son’s room.

And now to 2013:

In the cold of February this year, she tackled Graham Greene’s The Human Factor.  Self has read Greene before, but this time, a slim novel that would usually take her a few days to get through ended up taking almost two weeks (Loved it)

Her next classic was Anna Karenina.  Holy cow, that book took her a whole month to get through.  Strangely, she did not find herself loathing Vronsky.  Afterwards, she rented the Keira Knightley movie from Netflix.  Awful.  The most ludicrous movie she has ever seen.  Worse even than The Lair of the White Worm, directed by Ken Russell.  She can’t even begin to describe . . .

But, onward!

She was going to re-read War and Peace, but that would have taken half a year, and she was shortly to leave for Venice.  Instead, she tackled Don Quijote, finishing just two days before leaving on her trip.  That was the most incredible novel.  At first, she didn’t think she’d like it, because everyone has decided (from the very beginning) that Don Quijote is mad.  And she doesn’t like reading 900-page novels about people who’ve already been diagnosed.  But things got interesting when Sancho Panza entered the mix.  Then, the book became a work of pure pathos.  And on almost every page, self found herself laughing out loud.  Just ask The Man, he’ll tell you.

The next book on her reading list is The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa.  What a title!  She loves it almost as much as she does the title of the Kafka story, “The Hunger Artist.”  In the foreword to The Leopard, di Lampedusa grumbled that he couldn’t “do a Ulysses.”  So he decided to set his sights on a more attainable goal:  describing “twenty-four hours in the life of my great-grandfather, the day Garibaldi landed.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.


Self is resisting the ending so much that she’s continuously re-reading.

A few nights ago, she was within 100 pages of the end (p. 850), but now she’s back on p. 504.

Anna Karenina is probably self’s favorite novel in years (One can always tell which books are her favorites because they take self aaaages to finish).  Lately, her favorite reads have tended to be history —  like Adrian Goldsworthy’s Caesar:  Life of a Colossus.  That book took her three weeks to finish, last year.

Ian McEwan’s Atonement took up most of March 2012 (She was in Bacolod.  Reading, there, is like heaven.  Or, anyway, was like heaven.  Now self thinks that is purely an “outsider” experience.  If one truly belonged to Bacolod, one would be too busy to read anything except the newspapers.  Or e-mail)

One of self’s favorite characters in Anna Karenina is Levin.  She loves his farming musings, his tussles with his laborers, his anguish over his unrequited love(s).  On p. 504, Levin has been married to Kitty for three months.  Tolstoy is so sly a writer that he can’t leave Levin alone.  No!  Now Levin must understand something he didn’t know before:

At every step he found his former dreams disappointed, and new, unexpected surprises of happiness.  He was happy; but upon entering upon family life, he saw at every step that it was utterly different from what he had imagined.  At every step he experienced what a man would experience who, after admiring the smooth, happy course of a little boat on a lake, should get himself into that little boat.  He saw that it was not all sitting still, floating smoothly; that one had to think too, not for an instant to forget where one was floating; and that there was water under one, and that one must row; and that his unaccustomed hands would be sore; and that it was only to look at it that was easy; but that doing it, though very delightful, was very difficult.

During the month following Levin and Kitty’s wedding, the two experienced “a peculiarly vivid sense of tension, as it were, a tugging in opposite directions of the chain by which they were bound.  Altogether . . .  the month after their wedding —  from which by tradition Levin expected so much, was not merely a time of sweetness, but remained in the memories of both as the bitterest and most humiliating period of their lives.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Reading ANNA KARENINA: 20 Days In

This book, thus far, has set a record for “longest time self has spent reading one book,” at least in 2013.

The only other book that’s held her attention for more than a week was Bicycle Diaries, David Byrne’s account of biking in far-flung corners of the world (including Manila), which took her two weeks to finish, in January.  But it’s been 20 days now, and self is still a long way from the end of Anna Karenina.  She just can’t get enough of Tolstoy’s characters, and reads and re-reads and parses his sentences and laughs and cries and —  let’s just say, the book still holds her firmly in its thrall.

Here she is on p. 538 (538!  How could Tolstoy come up with such massive tomes?  When he had so many children and was such a pro-active landowner?  Methinks Mrs. Tolstoy must have been a saint!) of the Modern Library edition:

Countess Lydia Ivanovna had long ceased being in love with her husband, but from that time she had never ceased being in love with someone.  She was in love with several people at once, both men and women;  she had been in love with almost everyone who had been particularly distinguished in any way.  She was in love with all the new princes and princesses who married into the Imperial family; she had been in love with a metropolitan, a vicar, and a priest; she had been in love with a journalist, three Slavs, with Komisarov, a minister, a doctor, an English missionary, and Karenin.  All these passions, constantly waning or growing more ardent, did not prevent her from keeping up the most extended and complicated relations with the court high society.  But from the time after Karenin’s trouble she took him under her special protection, from the time she set to work on Karenin’s household looking after his welfare, she felt that all her other attachments were not the real thing, and that she was more generally in love, and with no one but Karenin.  The feeling she now experienced for him seemed to her stronger than any of her former feelings.  Analyzing her feeling, and comparing it with former passions, she distinctly perceived that she would not have been in love with Komisarov if he had not saved the life of the Tsar,* that she would not have been in love with Ristich-Kudzhitsky if there had been no Slav Question, but that she loved Karenin for himself, for his lofty, misunderstood soul, for the —  to her — high-pitched sound of his voice, for his drawling inflections which she thought charming, his weary eyes, his character, and his soft white hands with their swollen veins.  She was not simply overjoyed at meeting him, but she sought in his face signs of the impression she was making on him.  She tried to please him, not only by her words, but in her whole person.

(And the Countess is a minor character.  One of a whole host of minor characters who Tolstoy brings to life in a mere paragraph or two)

*  Komisarov saved Aleksandr II from being shot by knocking the pistol from the hand of a would-be assassin.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

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