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.

Reading Still Further in ANNA KARENINA

(Dear blog readers, if you have not read the book, and want to save some suspense for when you actually do get around to reading it, read no further.  On the other hand, if you are a student who has just been assigned this heavy novel to read, and have no desire to read it, one could actually pick up a thing or two from reading the rest of this post, though you will be damned to that special hell reserved for students who willingly give up intellectual stimulation for temporal expediency)

Anna gets so ill everyone thinks she is going to die.

Her husband forgives her, so moved is he to pity by her tragic fate. He even allows Anna’s lover, Vronsky, to mourn at his dying wife’s bedside. And when Anna has Vronsky’s baby, Karenin loves it and plays with it as if the child were his own.

What a stellar, absolutely moral and upright man (sort of like Christopher Tietjens in Parade’s End, which self will blog about further, when she’s done with Anna Karenina.  The Man is completely hooked by the story and has already watched all the episodes.  Self staunchly refuses to watch with him because she loves taking it slow.  That way, she gets to parse every twitch of Benedict Cumberbatch and Rebecca Hall’s stiff upper lips.  She did watch the previews for Episode 3, and there is a scene in which Christopher Tietjens says to Blonde Suffragette:  “When I get back from the war, will you be my mistress?”  And what do you think the Blonde Suffragette says in response?  Just imagine how you would respond if  Cumberbatch/Tietjens were to pose such a question to you, female readers!)

And now, back to Anna Karenina!

That old master, Tolstoy, does not permit Anna K to die.  No, that would be far too simple.  Anna recovers!  And then it’s back to the same-old, same-old.

On pp. 446- 447 of the Modern Library edition, Anna’s husband, Karenin, reflects on his decision not to divorce her:

Never had the impossibility of his situation in the world’s eyes, and his wife’s hatred of him, and altogether the power of that mysterious, brutal force that guided his life contrary to his inner mood, and exacted conformity with its decrees and change in his attitude towards his wife, been presented to him with such distinctness as that day.  He saw clearly that the world as a whole, and his wife, demanded —  but what exactly, he could not make out.  He felt that this was rousing in his soul a feeling of anger destructive of his peace of mind and achievement of any value.  He believed that for Anna herself it would be better to break off all relations with Vronsky; but if they all thought this out of the question, he was even ready to allow these relations to be renewed, so long as the children were not disgraced and he was not deprived of them or forced to change his position.  Bad as this might be, it was better than a complete break, which would put her in a hopeless and shameful position and deprive him of everything he cared for.  But he felt helpless;  he knew beforehand that everyone was against him, and that he would not be allowed to do what seemed to him now so natural and good, but would be forced to do what was wrong, though it seemed the proper thing to them.

This book is not just about Anna K, dear blog readers.  It’s equally about the compromises Anna’s husband feels he is being forced to make, in order to retain some of society’s respect.  Tolstoy, you’re such a sly one:  you’re a true master at showing the unpredictability of human emotions.

That coward, Vronsky, tried to kill himself but missed his heart (if in fact he was ever in possession of one) and survived, even though it was an hour before help came.  Imagine that!

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Supposedly a Post About Mokutanya

Last night, self’s friend Lowan (the mother of one of son’s best friends in high school) invited self for dinner at Mokutanya in Burlingame.

Lowan is self’s source for all things a) food-related; and b) car-related.

Her two boys are PhD students in UC Davis, her husband is out of town on a business trip, ergo:  Mokutanya on Sunday night.

Self was just about to describe the restaurant’s cute waitresses, the mod glasses one of the waitresses wore (black and red frames, self was dying to ask which store they were from), about the stylish hat worn by another waiter (This one male), and about the restaurant’s Wednesday/Thursday Exotic Meats Menu (Alligator, Wild Boar, Kangaroo, Cocoon, Swan, Buffalo, and various others self doesn’t remember) when she read through the comments left by Kyi on her Anna Karenina posts and just died laughing.  Kyi has read Anna Karenina and has been following self’s progress through the novel.  Because self posted about Anna K’s confession scene, Kyi was moved to comment:

brilliant Tolstoy – the only thing he did not mention was how we move our tongues at the space where a tooth used to be.

Kyi, you kill me!

Self wishes she could elaborate, but has to rush off to Fremont.  Miz Kathleen is here only until tomorrow.  WAAAAH!  But self already warned Miz Kathleen’s sister, Maria, that she would be back to take pictures of a) her collection of succulents; b) her huge wisteria; c) her four dachshunds and three cats; d) her collection of Eiffel Tower art; and her e) her kalachuchi and hibiscus.

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Following Anna K’s Confession (To Her Husband, in the Carriage)

Aleksey Aleksandrovich, having just heard the most cruel words issued forth by his wife (Yes, I love him, I am his mistress, and you, I hate you), manages to maintain his decorum and even assists her to get down from the carriage when they arrive home although his face wore “a strange expression of deathlike rigidity.”

After depositing Anna and continuing on in the carriage, Aleksey Aleksandrovich, “to his surprise and delight, felt complete relief both from this pity and from the doubts and agonies of jealousy.”

He feels he has “experienced the sensations of a man who has had a tooth out after suffering long from toothache.  After a fearful agony and a sense of something huge, bigger than the head itself, being torn out of his jaw, the sufferer, hardly able to believe in his good luck, feels all at once that what has long poisoned his existence and enslaved his attention exists no longer, and that he can think and live again.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.

Portrait of an Independent Woman: ANNA KARENINA’s Varenka

Even the minor characters who float serenely through the pages of this magnificent novel get their fifteen minutes of fame.  Here’s a young woman named Varenka, who Kitty meets while recovering her health at a German spa.  Kitty is accompanied at all times by her ever watchful mother, but Varenka is a completely different kind of woman:  independent and with a certain kind of inner serenity and strength:

This excerpt is from Chapter Thirty-Two.  Kitty and Varenka have been conversing when Kitty’s mother interrupts:

“Kitty, it’s cold!  Either get a shawl, or come indoors.”

“It really is time to go in!” said Varenka, getting up.  “I have to go on to Madame Berthe’s; she asked me to.”

Kitty held her by the hand, and with passionate curiosity and entreaty her eyes asked her:  “What is it, what is this of such importance that gives you such tranquility?  You know, tell me!”  But Varenka did not even know what Kitty’s eyes were asking her.  She merely thought that she had to go to see Madame Berthe too that evening, and to hurry home in time for maman’s tea at twelve o’clock.  She went indoors, collected her music, and, saying good-bye to everyone, prepared to leave.

“Allow me to see you home,” said the colonel.

“Yes, how can you go alone at night like this?” the princess chimed in.  “Anyway, I’ll send Parasha.”

Kitty saw that Varenka could hardly restrain a smile at the idea that she needed an escort.

“No, I always go about alone and nothing ever happens to me,” she said, taking her hat.  And kissing Kitty once more, without saying what was important, she stepped out vigorously with the music under her arm and vanished into the twilight of the summer night, bearing away with her her secret of what was important and what gave her the calm and dignity so much to be envied.

In the next chapter of Anna Karenina, Chapter Thirty-Three, Kitty learns from Varenka’s example “that one has but to forget oneself and love others, and one will be calm, happy, and noble.”

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

Further in ANNA KARENINA (Chapter Nineteen of the Modern Library Edition)

Vronsky orders a beefsteak:

On the day of the races at Krasnoe Selo, Vronsky had come earlier than usual to eat beefsteak in the officers’ mess of the regiment.  He had no need to be in strict training, as he had very quickly been brought down to the required weight of one hundred and sixty pounds, but he still had to avoid gaining weight, and he avoided starchy foods and desserts.  He sat with his coat unbuttoned over a white vest, resting both elbows on the table, and while waiting for the steak he had ordered he looked at a French novel that lay open on his plate.

Self forgets how tall Vronsky is supposed to be.  Because 160 lbs. on a six-foot man is a whole different story from 160 lbs. on a 5’8″ man . . .

Stay tuned, dear blog readers.  Stay tuned.

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