March Reading

Considering that I’ve been and still am very busy at work and sometimes felt too tired to read, I did manage to read quite a bit in March. Here’s the list:

Ongoing project:

Murasaki Shikibu and Royall Tyler (trsl.), The Tale of Genji.
I didn’t manage to read any of this in March – probably what made me feel that I’m in a slump. I was too tired to immerse myself into this complicated Japanese society. I’m falling behind, my reading buddy is at least 200 pages further along. I need to catch up, so we can continue discussing it. I haven’t read a single page in April yet, either…

Poetry:

  • Patrick Crotty (ed.), The Penguin Book of Irish Poetry.
    Finished! A very good anthology.
  • Emily Dickinson and Thomas H. Johnson (ed.), Final Harvest.
    Also finished – I love Emily Dickinson’s poems (even if I don’t always understand them). This was only a selection. One of these days I will get her entire collected poems.

Short Stories:

  • J. Sheridan Le Fanu, Green Tea and Other Weird Stories.
    Old-fashioned ghost and horror stories. Some of the stories were more like novellas. I enjoyed them, but I prefer the short stories by M. R. James, which are in the same vein and which I read last year. I’m never going to feel the same way about green tea again – apparently it can make you susceptible to harassment by supernatural creepy monkeys who are terrible for your life expectancy. 😉
  • Robert L. Mack, Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.
    This Oxford Worlds Classic paperback has been on my shelves for years and I’ve only ever browsed in it a little. I’m reading it all through this time. Not really short stories, more like folk or fairy tales, but they are good. Sinbad the sailor sure wasn’t scrupulous about killing other people to further his own survival on his adventures!

Perth_Dog

Non-Fiction:

  • Samuel Johnson and David Womersley (ed), Selected Writings.
    Essays and letters and other miscellaneous stuff. Very interesting. I got to the half-way mark in March, about 600 pages.
  • May Sarton, The Fur Person.
    Absolutely delightful story of a cat’s life, written from the point of view of the cat and with a few fabulous “cat song” poems in it. I stumbled across it, because I was looking for another poet to read after Emily Dickinson, and Sarton is a poet that I was considering (actually, I’m reading Adrienne Rich at the moment, but Sarton is an option for another day). Very short and quick read, but lovely.
  • Peter Martin, A Dog Called Perth: The Voyage of a Beagle.
    Another interesting story of a pet’s life. This time a dog. Also shortish and a quick read. The dog had a very eventful life, and I loved her, but her owner was a sometimes arrogant person who did quite a few idiotic things with poor Perth that I wouldn’t do with mine. It was pure luck that things turned out fine. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it a lot.

Novels:

  • Laurie R. King, O Jerusalem.
    Installment 5 of the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Another reread, and very enjoyable. Russell and Holmes doing undercover spy stuff in Palestine during WWI.
  • Sally Wright, Pursuit and Persuasion and Out of the Ruins.
    Books 3 and 4 in the Ben Reese crime series I stared in February. Anti-stress (for me) crime novel. Kind of dark academia in that the protagonist works as an archivist for a university. I’m still planning to write a more detailed review of the series. There’s only one more book to go.

Two pet stories and three crime novels. A fun reading month!

Keep safe, world.

Tuesday Tidbits

Mum and I are once again at our place in Bavaria. We drove here last Thursday afternoon, again amid flurries of snow on the way. Real April weather. It’s quite cool and not really pleasant to work in the garden, which is a pity, because we’ve got lots of dead stuff from last year to tidy up. Our large rosemary bush hasn’t survived the harsh winter, which is a pity. The small apple tree and the Juneberry bush we planted have survived and are starting to grow new leaves. The three tiny hedge bushes I planted had a mixed result. One is looking healthy, one is middling and one seems to be ailing. We’ve also got tons of daisies and even more dandelions in our lawn. The peonies are coming up nicely and the lilacs are also growing new leaves. At my place in Baden-Württemberg, where it is warmer, the lilacs are already showing emerging buds.

Curious Dog is back to his usual state. The last couple of weeks he’d been very much driven by hormones. Some bitches around my place must have been in heat, or something, because CD spent all his time on our walks sniffing everywhere like a crazy dog and pulling worse than ever on the leash. He also whined and even howled a few times in the house, which he otherwise only does when he hears emergency sirens. It was quite strange. He’s never been so lovesick before. He’s also losing his winter fur and spreading it evenly around the house. He always sheds a bit, but currently it’s shedding season. I wanted to go to dog school with him, but it is closed again due to Corona lockdown. We haven’t been since sometime last fall. We don’t really need it, but it’s fun and sometimes we do learn something new.

Work is insane. I have my usual tasks, which have multiplied, because tasks we used to do every 6 or 7 weeks we are now doing once a month. There’s also the special project that I’m coordinating, which I can’t wait to be over, but it’ll run for some months yet. Then I have to do a presentation and demonstration of something next week, which is driving me crazy. I hate presentations. At least I hope things will be more manageable once the presentation is done. I spoke with my manager about that other task I complained about in my last life update post, and he couldn’t answer my questions. Turned out, he hadn’t thought the thing through very well. He’s now gone off to think about it a bit and in the meantime, I’m not doing anything about it. Haven’t got time anyway.

I spent some time on the weekend reading The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell, by Robert Dugoni. It’s told in the first person by Sam, who has a rare condition called ocular albinism which means that he has red eyes (that is, the colour of his eyes is red). He is born into a Catholic family and is sent to Catholic schools where the students tease and bully him for being “the devil child”, but his parents are very supportive. He tells the story of his life as a grown-up looking back and comments on it. He makes friends with a couple of other misfits, has a run-in with a terrible bully who also turns up to harass him when he’s grown up. He makes it through challenges and tragedies and grows rich, gets the girl, has a son… It’s like a modern fairy tale in which the hero forges alliances, struggles through adversity, grows wiser, gets the treasure, marries the princess and is set up for living “happily ever after”. It was not bad but not exactly memorable. Angle of Repose, about which I posted a review yesterday, was memorable, this novel wasn’t. Everything was explained and tied up neatly, no ambiguity, no open ends, hardly anything to mull over and ponder.

It didn’t do much for me and I wouldn’t have read it except that it’s the book that my book club is currently reading. The book club selections are always very hit and miss, but at least it wasn’t as bad some of the others I’ve had to read. Although I admit that the book club members quite often don’t like the books I suggest – sometimes even I don’t like the book I proposed. The person whose turn it is to select the book is supposed to choose one they haven’t read yet, so you never know what you will get. Our reading tastes are also quite different. Sometime there’s a real gem, but mostly it’s so-so or even quite terrible. But we do enjoy discussing the books and gossiping about life in general. We usually end up gossiping more than we discuss the book. We’ve been doing Zoom calls during Corona which isn’t as much fun as meeting in person, but better than nothing. We are meeting this week, I’m looking forward to it. Also anticipating the next book – it could be a hit.

Keep safe, world.

Angle of Repose

By Wallace Stegner. I read this novel back in February and loved it. It was a re-read. I’d read it years ago in the 1990s, at university. I couldn’t remember many of the details, but I did remember that I loved it even then. On re-reading, what did I enjoy? Its complexity, its ambiguity, the poetic and sometimes thrilling descriptions of nature and life on the frontier, the contrast between culture and nature, the complex human relationships, the open ending.

The novel has two levels of plot. We have the life lived by the first-person narrator, Lyman Ward, who is researching and narrating the lives of his grandparents, Oliver Ward and Susan Burling Ward. Oliver was a mining engineer and Susan a famous illustrator and novelist. They lived in the last quarter of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. Lyman is writing in the 1970s. He’s a retired professor of History, suffering from a degenerative disorder that makes it hard for him to move or care for himself. He focuses specially on Susan, because she has left a large collection of letters. As the novel progresses, the reader learns that Lyman is interested in his grandparents’ relationship, because his own has fallen apart:

What interests me in all these papers is not Susan Burling Ward the novelist and illustrator, and not Oliver Ward the engineer, and not the West they spend their lives in. What really interests me is how two such unlike particles clung together, and under what strains, rolling downhill into their future until they reached the angle of repose where I knew them.

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose. Penguin, 2000, p 227

Lyman and his wife Ellen divorced after 25 years of marriage under circumstances that Lyman judged to be a horrendous betrayal (well, it was, pretty much). He very much resents her but is being pushed towards a reconciliation by his son who still has a relationship with his mother.

Oliver and Susan also had a complicated and difficult relationship and once a great crisis but remained together. As a young woman, Susan was friends with Augusta Drake and Thomas Hudson. They lived on the East coast and lived for culture. Thomas became a well-known editor and married Augusta. Lyman believes that Susan would also have liked to marry Thomas or might even have lived as one of a ménage à trois with them. But she came to know Oliver and after a long engagement they were married. Augusta and Thomas didn’t approve of Oliver, he was too uncultured for them. He also didn’t try to ingratiate himself for which there wasn’t really much opportunity as his realm as geological engineer was in the West of America. Susan and he moved from one mining camp to another, but he always tried to build nice homes for her. Susan was ambitious for him, but she also held him back, as she didn’t want to follow him to some of the more uncivilized places that might have been good to grow his career. Sometimes, Oliver was unemployed, because he had a mind of his own and had strong ethics that caused conflicts with his superiors.

Eventually, a second relationship triangle formed. Oliver collaborated a lot with his friend and colleague Frank Sargent, who flirted with and perhaps fell in love with Susan. Susan started unfavourably comparing Oliver not only with Thomas, but also with Frank. Oliver’s career stagnated while Susan, with her connections back East to Thomas, turned into a famous illustrator and novelist. Sometimes the family lived off her income. Oliver occasionally turned to drink, which Susan resented. Eventually, when they were in their forties, with three children, a boy, Ollie, and two girls, Betsy and Agnes, a tragedy happened, which was Susan’s fault, that caused Oliver to leave Susan for a couple of years and also created a break between Ollie (the son) and Susan that was apparently never completely reconciled. Ollie was Lyman’s father.

Lyman presents all this to the reader from Susan’s letters to Augusta and from some old newspaper articles. Susan, however, didn’t write anything in her letters about the crisis (which I don’t want to mention, so as not to spoil the crux of the novel for anyone), so Lyman, is basically speculating:

All I know is the what, and not all of that; the how and the why are all speculation.

Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose. Penguin, 2000, p 582.

Lyman was a History professor; he’s used to interpreting texts. The reader can’t be sure whether the tale he tells about Susan’s and Oliver’s motivations are any kind of truth. The letters aren’t shown to the reader, only the narrative that Lyman creates from them. And isn’t his name “lie man” kind of telling? Lyman believes that his grandparents never made up and lived next to each other for the rest of their long lives in a kind of petrified marriage. But I, as the reader, think that this may not be true. For one, Susan and Oliver may not have indulged in public displays of affection, seeing that they grew up in the 19th century. For another, I think that the rose garden that Oliver planted for Susan at the cottage that Lyman is now living in (and to which they only moved to after the crisis in their marriage) may have been a sign that he had forgiven her after all. Directly after the tragedy, before leaving for a couple of years, Oliver had destroyed an earlier rose garden in a fit of despair and rage. That’s why I think that the second half of their marriage wasn’t as loveless as Lyman seems to think.

It’s Lyman who is debating with himself if he should stay unforgiving towards his ex-wife in the same way he believes his grandparents to have remained estranged. He is pressured by his son to reconcile with his ex-wife, who had left him when he first became ill and who now, after a strange tragedy of her own, would like to see him again. It appears that, due to his analysis of his grandparents’ life (regardless of whether he is right about them, which he may well be) he has begun to question his refusal to forgive his wife. He’s wondering whether unforgiving harshness is really healthy, and whether he was a good husband during their marriage. Or maybe he thinks that a reconciliation would solve his caretaker problem – she could look after him and he could stay in his home instead of needing to move into a care facility, as his son urges him to do throughout the novel. The latter would be a rather self-serving act, which I don’t think is in character for him, but who knows? It would certainly suit his son.

I love the ambiguity of the novel. You think you know everything about Oliver and Susan, but more and more you come to see that you are only following Lyman’s interpretation of their lives. In addition to the relationship issues, I also like the novel because of the great description of nature and life in the American West. It’s not about the Wild West from cowboy movies, but about exploration and cartography and building a life in remote places. The contrast between the civilized East and untamed West is very well shown. There are also other characters and their stories that I haven’t touched on in this review, but which are also vividly realized. Have I said I love this novel? I really do and highly recommend it. I’m sure I’ll be rereading it and finding things I’ve missed. I also would like to read more of Stegner.

“Angle of repose”, by the way, is geological terminology meaning the “angle at which dirt and pebbles stop rolling downhill.”

Keep safe, world.

Wednesday Waffling

So, I had a quite stressful week before Easter, a lovely relaxed lazy Easter weekend (from Friday to Monday, as both days are public holidays in Germany), and now I’m at the end of another stressful work week. I still haven’t quite managed to optimally organize my increased workload.

The week before Easter was lovely and warm, going up to 24°C but now we’re back down to just around 2°C with snow, sleet, snow pellets and a nasty cold wind. It started on Monday; the rest of Easter was cool but sunny. Monday afternoon I was caught on my walk with Curious Dog in a shower of sleet. We got sopping wet, but CD didn’t seem to care much. I was freezing, especially my wet hands on his leash, while he was unconcernedly sniffing various clumps of grass for ages. But I let him because I am a sucker. I like for him to enjoy his time outside on our walks. Yesterday was also nasty and today our afternoon walk took place during snowfall (at least we didn’t get wet). The forecast does indicate that temperatures will go up again on Friday. I much prefer this weather to its being too warm too early in the year, though. The precipitation will be good for the woods and fields, I hope.

I had tons of things to do at work before and after Easter. I got annoyed at my manager, because in last week’s team meeting he blithely announced another task that I am supposed to be the owner of (well, actually two similar tasks). I haven’t been responsible for this particular thing for quite a number of years, but it involves new software tools and new regulations that I have to familiarize myself with. As I’m so busy, I didn’t appreciate having this new task dumped on me without warning and with the training that’s required… – I don’t mind training, but this month I’ve got tons of deadlines already and my calendar is full. I don’t know when exactly I have to start with the new responsibility, but I’ve had a rotten experience with the same thing in the past. It involved interacting with aggressive customers in escalation mode due to no fault of mine. So, I definitively don’t want to go into this without proper up-to-date training. And I will need support by other colleagues and there’s all sorts of other framing conditions that my manager doesn’t seem to have considered. I was mad as hell but haven’t had a chance to talk with them about it. Probably for the best. Now I’ve had a few days to cool down and come up with all points that need to be clarified. I’ve got my jour fixe with them tomorrow and will try to get a better understanding of what this thing entails.

This week is a short week, what with only three workdays for me. There’s a deadline that had me hounding people to improve the quality of their content for the last couple of weeks as well as a lot of other quality checks. The new schedule where we publish our documents monthly instead of every six weeks seems to make quite a difference in workload which I had underestimated. That, in addition to the new project I took on a couple of months ago, is proving a challenge. Maybe I’ll get used to it in a few more weeks.

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Easter was great, because of the relaxation. Nothing but cooking, eating, sleeping, reading, watching films or series, walking with Curious Dog, meditating, playing games…I’d done all the meal-planning beforehand and bought all the groceries we needed on the Wednesday before Easter (except for some odds and ends which I forgot and picked up on Thursday) thus avoiding the Easter rush. We had traditional “green sauce” with potatoes on Thursday. Green sauce consists (in our case) of soy yoghurt with a mix of chopped herbs, salt, pepper, and a bit of olive oil. A very simple but tasty meal. On Friday we had home-made pizza, with homemade cashew mozzarella. Saturday, we had mashed potatoes with glazed apple pieces, fried onions and fried smoked tofu (the non-vegan recipe calls for German blood sausage instead of tofu). Very nice although it sounds weird. It’s called “heaven and earth” (“heaven” for the apples, “earth” for the potatoes). On Sunday we had cauliflower in tomato-caper sauce with polenta and on Monday we had a carrot, leek, date, and rice curry cooked in my clay pot in the oven at 200° for 1.5 hours. Partner made a lovely poppy seed cake with a sweet soy yoghurt and berry topping for Sunday and Monday, and a sweet yeast loaf for Friday and Saturday. If I can’t think of what to cook next Easter, I’ll look up this post for inspiration.

I didn’t read any of the books I’m currently in the middle of during the Easter weekend. Somehow, I got side-tracked and picked up an 840 page space opera by David Weber: In Fury Born. I picked it up off my shelves for a reread, but I couldn’t remember a thing about it. Did I maybe not read it before? A bit mystifying. Usually I do recognize bits and pieces, even if I can’t remember everything, but with this one, I remembered almost nothing. It was a good, escapist read. Similar to all the David Weber books I’ve read, it is about a courageous elite soldier, who is disillusioned and leaves the military. Later she experiences a horrific personal tragedy and kind of teams up with an ancient Greek Fury, Tisiphone, (this is the plot element that sets the book apart from others by Weber) and an AI spaceship named Megaira. They communicate telepathically and Tisiphone inhabits her mind. I like reading about stuff like that. Otherwise, the novel is too full of military stuff, and too many people get killed. There’s also lots of politics. These are all things I don’t like that much, but somehow there are times when I enjoy David Weber’s books a lot. I’ve read most of his Honorverse novels, which are about a heroic member of a space navy, Honor Harrington. They are also full of military life, politics and terribly evil antagonists that have to be overcome, but they are very thrilling and sometimes I just feel like reading such a tale.

I did continue reading Emily Dickinson’s poetry in the mornings and at night I’ve started reading the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments instead of short stories. I’ve had this Oxford World’s Classics paperback for a long time and have never yet read all of it. I’m enjoying it a lot so far (and I remember quite a few of the stories, as I have read some of them before). My new book light is very helpful for reading books (instead of ebooks) in bed at night, as it doesn’t bother Partner as much as my bed-side lamp. It’s one of those clip-on rechargeable LED lights that you can adjust to different levels of brightness. A very useful gadget.

During the Easter weekend we watched parts two and three of Matrix, which I’m sure I didn’t watch when they came out. The plot is odd and somewhat esoteric, but it’s mostly a lot of extended action scenes. Fun, but nothing to rave about. We watched the Narnia film Voyage of the Dawn Treader on Disney+. Not exactly like the book (I don’t remember the plotline about the seven swords), but I liked it anyway. On Monday night we watched the Tatort (crime scene) episode 1162 Der Herr des Waldes (The Lord of the Woods) set in the town of Saarbrücken. Not bad, with a rather surreal scene between two psychopaths, but it suffers because all the main protagonists are not very likeable (at least, I don’t care much for them). It also ended on a bit of cliffhanger, which is a pain because Tatort episodes set in Saarbrücken only run once a year. We’ll have to wait until next year to see what happens next.

We also watched the first three episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, also on Disney+. Not bad, except for all that rubbish about needing heroes. People shouldn’t place others on pedestals and worship them as heroes. I don’t care about that aspect of the Marvel Universe at all. The new Captain America starts off as quite a nice person, but then morphs into an arse. The ones against whom the Falcon and the Winter Soldier are fighting may turn out to be not as bad as they seem. They are angry, because they have been dispossessed by the returned humans who had been missing for five years (as was told in the Avengers arc of films). An interesting plot, but the series isn’t as quirky as WandaVision.

So that’s the gist of what I’ve been doing since last I posted.

Keep safe, world.