The Summer Guest — Book Review

The Summer Guest coverI just enjoy translating, it’s like opening one’s mouth and hearing someone else’s voice emerge.
Iris Murdoch

I gamble on a lot of books by authors I’m not familiar with, often giving up on them after fifty pages or so. Life is too short to slog through books I don’t enjoy. I picked up The Summer Guest after sampling several books that didn’t capture my attention, thinking I’d probably be adding it to the pile of disappointments. The author, Alison Anderson, is an award-winning translator, perhaps best known for  translating The Elegance of the Hedgehog from the French — yet another well-regarded book I failed to finish. Also, I was annoyed by the title. Justin Cronin wrote a lovely book by that name about ten years ago. I’ll never understand why authors recycle a title; it seems to marginalize the first book, as if it’s been forgotten by now.

I shouldn’t have worried, because not only did I finish The Summer Guest, I’m sure I’ll be adding it to my list of favorite books of the year. Anderson’s elegantly constructed novel, like all the books I love, engages both the mind and the heart. Readers will learn about Chekhov, Russian and Ukrainian history,  and the art of translation, and they will reflect on the meaning of love and friendship.

The “summer guest” in the novel is Anton Chekhov, who rents a cottage on the estate of the Lintvaryov family in eastern Ukraine. Chekhov, a doctor who writes short stories and plays to earn extra cash, develops a close friendship with Zinaida Lintvaryova, who is also a doctor but has recently become blinded by illness. Zinaida keeps a diary chronicling her relationship with Chekhov. When the diary surfaces more than 100 years later, London publisher Katya Kendall hires Ana Harding to translate — and to help solve the mysteries it contains. Did Chekhov write a novel during the time he spent on the Lintvaryov estate? The missing novel could change literary history, and also revitalize Ana Harding’s career and make it possible for Katya Kendall’s publishing house to survive:

Ana: “What did she really expect from the lost novel? Why did the thought of it cause a knot in her stomach, a jolt of sleep-depriving adrenaline? Because it would change her life. It would respond to yearning, fill a void.”

Katya: “She imagined the money coming in, the thrill of being not only solvent but also able to turn things around. To defy the recession and geopolitics and the received opinions of the publishing world . . . Ah, Zinaida, miracles do happen.”

There will be no literal miracle for Zinaida, who suffers from an incurable illness. The miracles that Katya and Ana discover — and I’m not giving anything away — are the magic of literature and the power of the imagination. In a discussion with the director of a Ukrainian museum devoted to Chekhov, Ana explores the meaning of fiction:

Was that not the beauty of fiction, that it aimed closer at the bitter heart of truth than any biography could, that it could search out the spirit of those who may or may not have lived, and tell their story not as it unfolded, as a series of objective facts recorded by an indifferent world, but as they had lived it and, above all, felt it? Was there a finer way to honor friendship, and love, and being in the world?

In an article on Lithub, Anderson describes how her reading life inspired her to write The Summer Guest:

One of the more interesting aspects of being a lifelong reader is to discover which authors and books in one’s personal library stay the course over time, and which ones we consign to the recycle bin with the sad realization that the author no longer speaks to us as he or she once did. Then there are those whose voice was too quiet when we were young, but who now speak with such assurance and such pitch-perfect wisdom and grace that we find them all the more enthralling for having overlooked or underestimated them earlier in life.

Anton Chekhov has been just such an author for me . . .

Anderson says Chekhov’s letters, in which he describes the Lintvaryov family, were the starting point for the novel. Zinaida’s perspective allows her to present a subjective view of Chekhov, “limited by time and blindness and the constraints of society”, and Zinaida’s feelings reflect the “love, admiration and gratitude” that Anderson feels toward the writer.

Anderson estimates she went through twenty or thirty different versions of the novel, struggling most with the ending: “I won’t say that writing the diary of a sightless Ukrainian woman in the 19th century was the easy part, but it was certainly easier than coming up with an ending for the story of the beleaguered translator whose job it is to render the diary into English.” The ending, which involves a twist the reader may or may not anticipate, perfectly ties together the novel’s three storylines — Zinaida’s, Ana’s, and Katya’s.

The three characters all struggle to translate both life and language. As Zinaida loses her sight, she relies on Chekhov to interpret the world for her. Katya, a native Russian speaker, sees her language as her “greatest comfort and pride” and laments the “relative poverty” of English. Clinging to the language of her childhood is damaging her relationship with her husband and business partner. Ana finds that the Russian language has taught her something “completely unexpected and equally precious: another way of seeing the world”.

 

 

 

 

 

Read a Little Poetry

A man should hear a little music, read a little poetry, and see a fine picture every day of his life . . .
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As I sat staring at my screen, trying to decide which books to include in my list of summer reading recommendations, it occurred to me that I’ve never said much in Books on the Table about my love of poetry. I’ve begged readers to give short stories a try (5 Reasons to Read Short Stories), pointing out that they are perfect for anyone who needs what novelist Amber Dermont calls a “single serving” of literature. Expanding on her metaphor, I’d like to suggest that if you need a shot (espresso or liquor, take your pick!) of literature, read a poem.

eb_white_and_his_dog_minnie

E.B. White

A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer . . . He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poem utterly clear is a trifle glaring.
E.B. White

E.B. White, known for the lucid and concise prose advocated in The Elements of Style, also celebrated the mysterious nature of poetry. If you know White only through his classic children’s books, I encourage you to read his essay collections, which are spectacular. You’ll never read better writing. In Here is New York, White says: “A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning.” White wrote several books of poetry, all now out of print, although you can find some of his poems online.

I treasure my poetry books more than any others I own, but I also enjoy reading poetry on my phone or computer screen. Before watching or reading the news in the morning, I like to read a poem. It puts me in a much better frame of mind, and if I’m lucky, certain lines will resonate with me and stick with me for the rest of the day. Rereading old favorites is always a pleasure, but it’s a special treat to discover new poems. You can subscribe to Poem-a-Day, Your Daily Poem, The Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor, or other websites that will deliver poems to your inbox every day. The Poetry Foundation has a free app with thousands of poems. If you’re stuck waiting in line for a few minutes, what better way to spend your time than reading a poem?

9780142003442Garrison Keillor has collected his favorite selections from The Writer’s Almanac public radio show in anthologies — Good Poems and Good Poems for Hard Times. Two other anthologies I recommend are Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them and Poems That Make Grown Women Cry: 100 Women on the Words That Move Them. The editors of these books (father and son team Anthony and Ben Holden) asked notable men and women this question: “What poem moves you to tears?” Please don’t be put off by the word “cry” in the titles; the poems are emotionally powerful, not depressing.

In grade school, I was forced to memorize poems, which was not so bad, and then to recite them to the class, which was dreadful. I don’t think that’s part of today’s curriculum, unfortunately. I probably sound like a curmudgeon, but I think rote memorization is good mental exercise, and being made to do something that makes you uncomfortable builds character. Anyway, when you can’t sleep, it’s helpful to have a little treasure trove of memorized poetry in your brain. Strangely, I’m often comforted by Macbeth’s soliloquy, delivered as he struggles with guilt and possible insanity: “Is this a dagger which I see before me/The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee . . .”

This morning’s poem, “The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm”, by Wallace Stevens, is everything a poem should be: lovely, evocative, and a little puzzling. Please read it, let it soak in, and be glad you don’t have to analyze it for English class.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

The words were spoken as if there was no book,
Except that the reader leaned above the page,

Wanted to lean, wanted much most to be
The scholar to whom his book is true, to whom

The summer night is like a perfection of thought.
The house was quiet because it had to be.

The quiet was part of the meaning, part of the mind:
The access of perfection to the page.

And the world was calm. The truth in a calm world,
In which there is no other meaning, itself

Is calm, itself is summer and night, itself
Is the reader leaning late and reading there.

Note: I just discovered a wonderful blog called Read a Little Poetry — check it out!

 

 

 

 

The View from the Cheap Seats — Book Review

I’m going to suggest that reading fiction, that reading for pleasure, is one of the most important things one can do.
Neil Gaiman, “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming”

152949Confession: I’d never read anything by Neil Gaiman until last week, when I read his new collection of nonfiction pieces, The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction. Well, I read most of it. I admit to skimming the essays in Section II, “Some People I Have Known”, since they presupposed a certain amount of knowledge about influential science fiction and fantasy authors. The NPR reviewer calls the 550-page book a “hefty tome”, noting that Gaiman started as a journalist in the 1980s and that a complete collection of his nonfiction would “take up volumes”.

Why did I even pick up Gaiman’s book, given that I’m not a fan of the writing he’s best known for — science fiction, fantasy, comic books, and graphic novels?  (Don’t ask me what the difference is between comic books and graphic novels. All I know is that they both have tiny pictures and all-caps type, which look as though they would cause this middle-aged, non-edgy reader to take to her bed with a headache.) I don’t mean to denigrate his books; they just don’t appeal to me, the same way Jane Smiley’s trilogy about an Iowa farm family probably doesn’t appeal to the people who devour Gaiman’s Sandman series. I knew that Gaiman is considered a literary giant — as well as a huge proponent of libraries and bookstores — and I wanted to learn more about him and his writing.

I’ve never really liked genre fiction — even as a child,  I didn’t care for science fiction, fantasy, and mystery novels. I did love Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (which is still on my list of favorite books), and like Gaiman, I adored C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series. But mostly I liked, as I still do, realistic books that were more about character than plot. If the only books that were given to me as a child were set in other worlds, or populated by non-humans, I probably wouldn’t have loved reading — just the way many young readers dislike reading when they’re force-fed a diet of “relationship” novels. In an essay called “The Pornography of Genre, or the Genre of Pornography”, which isn’t about pornography at all (“that was just put in to make it a catchy title”), Gaiman discusses what makes something genre fiction:

If the plot exists to get you from the lone cowboy riding into town to the first gunfight to the cattle rustling to the showdown, then it’s a Western. If those are simply things that happen on the way, and the plot encompasses them, can do without them, doesn’t actually care if they are in there or not, then it’s a novel set in the old West.

I like novels set in the old West; I don’t like Westerns. But Gaiman points out that genre offers writers “something to play to and to play against. It gives you a net and the shape of the game. Sometimes it gives you the ball.” The framework of working within a genre makes for a better story, he argues, and nothing is more important to him than a good story. The very best stories, he suggests, transcend genre.

Gaiman, who’s written many children’s books, discusses an issue I’ve often wondered about, “that most vexing of questions . .  what is a children’s book anyway?” I’d buy a copy of The View from the Cheap Seats just to read his thoughts on children and reading. Parents, he says, should not concern themselves with what children read because, first of all, children are “really good at self-censorship. They have pretty good sense of what they are ready for and what they are not, and they walk the line wisely.” They also don’t discriminate between good and bad books:

What a child takes from a book is never what an adult takes from it. Ideas that are hackneyed and dull for adults are fresh and new and world-changing for children. And besides, you bring yourself to a book, and children are capable of imbuing words with magic that not even the author knew was there.

I’m a big underliner, but it’s been a long time since I underlined as much in a book as I did in The View from the Cheap Seats. Gaiman’s views on Moby Dick, Edgar Allan Poe, James Thurber, C.S. Lewis, The Moth Radio Hour, libraries, the value of reading . . . all underlined in my copy of The View from the Cheap Seats. In one of my favorite passages, he reminisces about his favorite bookstores:

And writing this, all of those bookshops come back, the shelves, and the people. And most of all, the books, their covers bright, their pages filled with infinite possibilities. I wonder who I would have been, without those people and those places, without books.

If that’s the view from the cheap seats, I’ll take it.