Category Archives: Fiction

Reading Recovery

Published in the year of his death from cancer, Henning Mankell’s After the Fire is a slow examination of a seventy-year-old’s confrontation with solitude and loss.  The protagonist, a retired doctor,  lives in a archipelago being visited by an arsonist, and we begin at the site of the first fire. Finding the arsonist is relegated to the background, as what it means to live in a community where trust is replaced by wariness is explored, even as death and old age is the larger specter in the forefront.  Yet this is an optimistic novel, where friendship and family, however distant, is embraced, sometimes gingerly, sometimes with affection.

This was the one of the last books I read before I broke my wrist, but not the last book I’ve read since.  There was a fatalistic stoicism in the narrative that strikes me deeper as  I now try to fill my days with no-impact activity.  Thus constrained to cat care, lackluster weeding, a great deal of sighing, a fascination of one-handed bottle opening techniques, elevating my arm on pillows, watching repeats of mysteries, instagram, I am reading with an awareness that my situation could have been worse.  The Great Believers by the quite brilliant Rebecca Makkai, a Claire Messud novel, Elif Safak‘s Forty Rules of Love,and a wonderful novel by Caitlin Macy called Mrs. Now, biding my time, easing insomnia, I am romping through Kevin Kwan‘s Crazy Rich Asians, which will become a film*. it has an all-Asian cast, for it is story about Asians.  Apparently, one filmperson wanted the heroine to be re-cast white, but no.  She will be a wary non-rich, non-crazy Asian woman portrayed by an Asian.

Sometimes  the fates shift the balance.

*the book is different than what the film preview shows, from dialogue to fashion, alas.

First Day of Class

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Isamu Noguchi, Slide Mantra

There was a plan.  Drive to the station, find a parking spot, take public transport, pick up copies of my syllabus , and go to the class I was teaching with time to spare.  But where would my syllabus copies be?  There were two choices, and thinking I was being efficient,  I checked my department mailbox, housed in the building I would pass on my way to class. It took me a minute to remember which floor I wanted, I exited the elevator with confidence. But I did not find my copies.  As I had not taught the previous term, I did not even find my mailbox.  No matter, I thought, I’ll go directly to the center.   Once there,  I picked up my copies cheerfully, and headed to class.  Once in the building, waiting for the elevator, I checked the room number on my syllabus.  Ah… Wrong building.  Chagrined, I headed back to my department building.  On reaching the requisite floor, I checked for the room, but found no such room.  What Kafka story had I stumbled into? I asked directions from two equally mystified young men, then decided to backtrack to my department, where I discovered I had written the wrong building on my syllabus.  How could that be?  Hadn’t I checked and rechecked?  Apparently not.   I hurried off to the original building, arriving ten minutes late, determined not to launch into an explanation, whereupon I promptly did.

 

The class went well, I think,  despite my bad jokes, talking far too much, and dithering on the computer.  By the time we discussed what mattered to us, writing fiction, I began to enjoy my students’ company.  I headed back to the subway, to begin my commute home.  Of course, neither of the two subway cards I fished out had any value on them, so I quickly bought another, rushed onto the tain that was just about leave, reading its destination quickly.  But to make sure, I asked a young woman if I was in the right direction.  Of course not.  Now here is the strange part of my day:  the station we pulled into was on my route.  Whereupon the young woman realized that it was she who was on the wrong train.  After she exited and the doors slid shut, the train paused. I wondered which direction the train would actually head, if an announcement would be made to change direction.  Instead, after the delay, the train roared ahead, depositing me, curiously,  exactly where I needed to be.

The Rain that is Raining Now

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It sounds like icy rain.  A kind of sharp patter which hits the terrace in different places, making me think of hail.  The windows are blurred with it, one section of the sliding glass door thick with droplets, and the other one, on the right, is clearer.  That is because the one on the left has the screen behind it.  I do not want to move to see if it is in fact ice that is hitting the glass.  It is May, and I need to write a novel, and I need to plant dahlias.

The wind is picking up.  It is a wind that starts and stops, and if Galway Kinnell were still alive, he could write a poem about it.  Galway Kinnell is dead, isn’t he?  Too many people have passed away–Jenny Diski the latest, who I only knew because she wrote about what it was like living with Doris Lessing as a child.  Has Doris Lessing passed?  Yes, she has.  Is it because Google is at my fingertips that my memory is so thin?  That I need not use my memory as much because I can always look it up?

It is that kind of day.  The kind I wonder why I am not really as good a writer as I want to, and no amount of soothing will do.  It is the cold, sharp, rock we carry in our hearts, the notion of not measuring up, when measuring up is fruitless and meaningless, and all-consuming.  Yes, yes, there are the gratitude lists, and look at where I am: safe from the rain and cold, with dinner in the fridge.  I have a fridge.  So where does this elusiveness come from?  Is it because classes are finished, grades are in, and I don’t have anything as good as Ferrante or Tolstoy to read?  A chunky novel I can’t wait to go to bed and start reading?

Meanwhile Air Fare Watchdog Alert tells me that there are $39 round trip tickets available if I only look, from here to there and back again.  I look, and I don’t see it.  Restlessness, this is what my mother calls.  When I get restless, with nothing much to occupy me for the moment.  It will change tomorrow, maybe even after dinner.  I’ll heat something up, watch Midsomer Murders which, by the way, is endless with episodes.  Nowhere near as good as Wallander, but Patti Smith has watched it.  Now, really, is that important?  It is just the rain, the cold, and early May.

 

But later:

Turned out that the Midsomer rerun I was watching, but new to me, took half-place in Denmark.  And the stars from The Killing and Borgen were on it with Nordic Sang-froid while teaming up with the Midsomer cast.  And from a long-lensed  view, The Killing star looked a lot like Patti Smith.

I enjoyed the episode, and midway through, laughed out loud.  Midsomer is hugely popular in Denmark, because, as the Danish broadcaster DK’s acquisitions director once put it to The Guardian, it’s a cozy English village mystery series, “And if you fall asleep it’s fine, because that’s what it’s for and you’ll never remember who did it anyway.”

Outside, the rain has paused, and the frogs are peeping again.

What I’m Still Reading this Summer

It’s War & Peace.  I am about two hundred pages to the end.  Tolstoy has analyzed and reanalysed the crucial battle in War of 1812 between the French and Russians in Borodino.  He has come up with two excellent metaphors, one of which is likening the two sides to duelists, which makes you sigh with pleasure for there had been such a duel between two men a thousand pages earlier.

It is a hefty, gorgeous book.  In the new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, pages of French conversation spoken by the Russian elite are left intact, translated in footnotes at the bottom of the page.  Other notes are in the back of the book.  Having spent a good deal of the summer watching Scandinavian TV in subtitles, I found if I skipped right to the translation, I got nearly everything except when I had to return to the original for the English.  Here is my metaphor: it was like playing table-tennis, running from the translated English to the subtitled (footnoted) English several times on any one page.  If one knew French well enough to read (which I do not, nor in fact, know it well enough to speak) one could understand the way Tolstoy satirized a people so enamoured of France whom they would be shortly at war by their misspeaking the language.

So, that was an aspect that I would not have the pleasure of enjoying.  But that left me quite a deal to enjoy.  I am reading War and Peace because the last time I read it, in college, intrigued by the Audrey Hepburn movie, I had skipped right over the war to learn all about Natasha at home.  For years, I thought I had read at least half of the book, when to my chagrin, this summer I discovered if I read it at all, I retained very little.  So when the plot twists arrive, and they do, in translated English with ferocity, I was caught unaware.

I began early July, a few pages every night and in the afternoon, asking a Russian-American  friend about this history I had never learned in school at one point.  Knowing how I had obsessively googled information about The Tudors while watching all thirty-eight episodes of that glittery, tawdry, engrossing fantasy, I did not want to do the same about Napoleon or Tolstoy.  Well, I did google a bit about the royal Russian family, and Napoleon will soon be researched. (It was Josephine, “The real wife,” as Tolstoy put it, who brought so many roses to France.  That history is refered to in Chasing the Rose by Andrea Di Robilant.) But back to War and Peace.

Three hundred pages from the end, not being able to take it any longer, I sneaked a peek at the ending to find out what did happen to some of the characters.  Readers, I did not fling the book away.  I went right back in, still surprised as the plot turned, as Tolstoy brings back characters I had forgotten about, evoking a supreme sadness about the arrogance that takes lives.  War is arrogance, after all, a need to fight and prove which side is better, which side is best.  No matter the victor, no one is convinced in the matter.  The sun was in everyone’s eyes.

If Anna Karenina is the best novel to read in the winter, then War and Peace works very well in sultry summer, where the battles take place in winter, and Christmas can be read about in July.

What I’m Reading this Summer

Indira Ganesan, Summer Reading, 2014

Indira Ganesan, Summer Reading, 2014

Long before I drenched myself in eau de bug spray, donned hat and gloves to weed and plant and rethink the garden, summer has meant reading.  Three months of reading novel after novel like chocolates.  For some years, when I taught full-time, I read mysteries: Dorothy Sayer, P.D. James, Martha Grimes, Reginald Hill, all of whom featured  reoccurring detectives, who like Hercule Poirot, most always got their criminal.  That is the appeal of the mystery: a glimpse into a horrific situation in which things will be put to right, and unlike in real life, justice prevails.  Kate Atkinson’s mysteries were a special treat, because  she, like James, was literary,but warmer.   Her sad-sack detective was winningly losing directions and falling for women who treat him dishonorably.  After I read Wallender and Steig Larsson, I stopped reading mysteries.  I felt as I had run out of good ones, and Jo Nesbo did not appeal. So this summer, I amassed my books to read for pleasure, thinking now is the time for Dostoevsky, for Hilary Mantel, and the Grantas that have been piling up.  But a friend told me of a thick, fat read, made for the summer, written by JK Rowling, featuring a detective who puts it all to right.  I dug right in.  I am told it is a series.

      then then a frie

Ceremonies

There is a need for ceremony. Today I saw new writers inducted into the world via the PEN New England Literary Awards with a rare sense of homage to the written words. I wish all of our parents had been there, to see how a world might receive a writer’s words, an act of defiance against the dark. All of us mad scribblers, we chafe against one another, hustling, jostling for place, while others remove themselves from the fray. Envy always bites just a little when someone else wins a prize; we could all be contenders. Today, though, I saw a brave young woman from Zimbabwe walk up to the podium to receive her prize and read to us, proving beyond a doubt, for at least a moment, that words are right in the world. I felt proud, and thought, this how we should be received, us foolish people who try to form words and tell a story, and somehow sometimes, amaze with the result. That one win means we all win.

Frog means luck

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Photo: wikipedia: northern green frog-Tweksbury, NJ

There is a fat green frog living in the garden, near the hostas. He kept utterly still as I called a neighbor to see. This corner of the garden must be charmed, for it was here I went eye to eye with a hummingbird. Has he been feasting on mosquitoes? I hope so. He looks so luxurious, so fat.