15 December, 2011

Winter Reads: A List

[Cue: deep-baritoned voice over...]


[Cue: windy sounds]

The dim days of earth's sabbath are before you.

[Cue: record scratch]

Did I ever tell you that my New York apartment is called "the Winter Palace?"
Did I not do that because it reveals how nerdy I am, that I love AllThingsRussian so profoundly I have chosen to name my apartment after the winter residence of the Tsars of Russia? Well at least I am consistent. At least I faked left and swung left.

Here in the Winter Palace I don't rely on the calendar or the weather to let me know that winter is here. My winter traditionally kicks off with:
  1. A viewing of Bill Murray in Scrooged. (Because this is the one time of year when it is acceptable to view a Bill Murray film on repeat that is not What About Bob?)
  2. The setting up of my sweet lil' lopsided Christmas tree, as well as my portable menorah presented to me (from a big black bag) by an enthusiastic Orthodox Jew in the middle of Leicester Square 5 years ago.
  3. An attempt or two at making the best of watching winter sports on television (Because sometimes you have been taken hostage. Or are tied to a pole. And forced to watch curling).
  4. A Google Image search for "Peppermint Schnapps Office Drunk-Fest." (Because there may not be snow on the ground but there is always time for a pointless Google search featuring the non-word "fest"...)
  5. Preparing the sofa for me to be curled up within it all winter long. And beneath a snuggle-y duvet, I shall be curled around a book.
[Cue: Tchaikovsky's Waltz of the Snowflakes

aaaaand Cue:

: : :::Snow::: : :]

It is winter.
You will be cold.
You will, at times, be housebound.
You will sip delicious hot beverages.
You will endure terrible winter sporting events on television (if you are dating anyone from Minnesota...)
You will warm your apartment with the oven in desperation (because central heating is sooo un-New York).
You will catch The Latest Animal Flu and give it to your friends.
But you will have books.
And a good book on a winter's day will make your heart warm, your imagination alive, and your afternoons waaay better than enduring a viewing of the Nordic Combined (because your cable has inevitably gone out...)

Here are some winter reading suggestions, for the only season that begins with "WIN."


original cover. nice.
1. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

I won't bother to go on and on (and on) about The Narnian Order Debate again.


...But I will passive-aggressively say that this FIRST novel in The Chronicles of Narnia is winter reading perfection:
a snow-laden magical land
discovered in the back of a wardrobe
that leads to the adventure of a lifetime
for four young children
in war-torn England.
Come on.
Break out the Turkish Delight, pour a hot cocoa and get to it.
There are talking animals,
an evil Snow Queen with both a carriage and a bone to pick with Goodness (not to mention an endless supply of poison brain-washing candy),
a war against Evil
and a journey home.

If you have only seen any of the (lovely) film adaptations, you are missing out. Go get it right now (and make certain you love the cover because there are many to choose from, some far better than others, and honestly? it matters...)

I also want to say this for good measure:
I am not a person of particular religion, but I am a person of great individual (though unspecified) faith, and despite the ownership the religious community finds in these stories (which I do not, and I encourage all of you to not begrudge, for they were written by a beautiful man of great faith), I admit that I never connected to them on that level.
     As a little girl and as an adult, I relate to Narnia on the level of an inquisitive child whose life was happy, but not without a constant, low, sonorous note of tumult represented by my father's illness. This allowed me to identify greatly with the Penvesies—who were happy children surrounded by great unrest in their country and their world, much as we are today.
     Full of hope, I was always ready for a fairy tale that fostered a faith in myself more profoundly  than in any particular Deity, and encourage anyone else to mine The Chronicles of Narnia for more than what is "on the label."
     My point for religious and secular readers alike is this: just as traveling to Rome, to Italy, to Europe itself, is not merely about a trip to the Vatican, a trip to Narnia is as fulfilling and rich as we have the vision and openness for it it to be.
Narnia is for us all.
"But what does it all mean?" asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
"It means," said Aslan, "that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of Time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation."

2. Little Women 
by Louisa May Alcott

Ah! One of my favorite Christmases in literary history begins on page one: sisters Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy March are discussing what they might buy themselves for Christmas if they only had the means (as the March family did in the days before their father went into the Civil War), only to remember all the things they could give to their selfless mother, Marmy.

But of course, Little Women is one of the most beloved books of all time, chronicling the four inextinguishable March sisters as they struggle through poverty, miss their soldiering father, and cope with the harsh realities of life as they grow up in an often frigid New England (in both literal and social climate). Louisa May Alcott based much of this story on events and people in her own life and the prose, dialogue and swollen feeling that drapes each character she describes (and clearly loves) is as endearing and readable as it is passionate.

3. Rebecca
by Daphne DuMarier

Rebecca is a novel by Daphne du Maurier. When Rebecca was published in 1938, du Maurier became – to her great surprise – one of the most popular authors of the day. Rebecca is considered to be one of her best works.

"Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again" is the book's famous opening line, and from here its unnamed narrator reminisces about her past. It is evident at the beginning of the novel that Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter now live in some foreign exile. The events recounted in the book are in essence a flashback of the narrator's life at Manderley.

Its heroine, symbolically nameless, comes to Manderley and finds herself competing with the ghost of her husband's dead wife. The heroine has recently become "Mrs. de Winter," but Rebecca was "Mrs. de Winter" first, and the novel shows us the heroine's attempts to escape the dead wife's shadow, even as the sinister servant Mrs. Danvers dresses her in Rebecca's clothes and urges her to kill herself and leave the house to the ghost...come on. Why haven't you already started?

Rebecca is a classic of modern Gothic and psychological, and suspense literature. Gothic fiction is characterized by picturesque settings, an atmosphere of mystery and terror, and a hint of violence and the supernatural; Rebecca exemplifies the genre. The action takes place in the hallowed mansion of Manderley; the book encompasses a murder, a terrible fire, and features a sinister servant; finally, the entire story is pervaded by the unquiet ghost of Rebecca herself.

Plus, in typically Gothic fashion, the weather mirrors the characters' moods (which is why it makes the Winter list!): a fog descends when the heroine is confused and depressed; Maxim kills Rebecca on the night of a terrible storm. A mansion consumed by fire? The (Freudian field-day) romance between an older man and a younger woman? The lurking, secret-enshrouded presence of a first wife? 19th Century fiction heaven! This story comes full circle, bringing us back to the present where we began, having been led us on a Gothic adventure of psychological and supernatural intrigue.
Read it.

4. If on a winter's night a traveler
by Italo Calvino

Let's talk for a moment abouta little literary function called the second-person narrative.

Okay. It is a narrative mode (not the story itself, but the way in which a story is told) where the protagonist or another main character is referred to by use of personal pronouns ("I," "They," and all other substitutes for proper nouns) in the second-person, giving the impression that you are being simultaneously addressed directly by the narrator, as well as being in the shoes of the narrator themselves.

Traditionally, the employment of the second-person form in literary fiction has not been as prevalent as the corresponding first-person and third-person forms. 
Here is a little chart:

Personal Pronouns
Nominative Case
Objective Case
Possessive Case
1st Person
I, we
me, us
my, mine, our, ours
2nd Person
your, yours
3rd Person
he, she, it, they
him, her, it, them
his, her, hers, it, their, theirs

In Second Person Narrative the narrator does NOT speak of themselves as in First Person Narrative ("Last night I dreamed of Manderley again..." - from Daphne DuMarier's previously mentioned Rebecca)
or in the uninvolved entity of the Third Person Narrative ("When Jane and Elizabeth were alone, the former, who had been cautious in her praise of Mr. Bingley before, expressed to her sister how very much she admired him." - from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice)
Second Person Narrative has the quality of addressing you directly, and though not as popular in literary fiction, is hugely prevalent in other literature such as in the case of a "How To" book, guide books, song lyrics, self-help books, do-it-yourself manuals, interactive fiction, role-playing games, and advertisements. ("You have alertly seized your opportunities and are now on the first rung of the ladder..." - from How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying)


Second Person Narrative is rare in fiction and this is 'SPN' at its finest. Calvino shows that the novel is capable of endless mutations. If on a winter's night a traveler turns out to be not one novel but ten, each with a different plot, style, ambiance, and author.

The narrative is about a reader trying to read a book called If on a winter's night a traveler.
That's right.
You heard me.
The book is about a person attempting to complete the task you yourself are currently attempting to complete as your are reading it.
... freaky... 

But wait, there's more! In this "playful postmodernist puzzle" described by The Telegraph (in one of it's "100 novels everyone should read" list)
Every odd-numbered chapter is in the second person, and tells the reader what he is doing in preparation for reading the next chapter.
The even-numbered chapters are all single chapters from whichever book the reader is trying to read.

Trust me: it is weird and wonderful innovative contemporary fiction, and full of magic.

5. The Master and Margarita
by Mikhail Bulgakov

     . . . Comrades:
Winter is clearly the most opportune time to spend curled around a juicy piece of Russian Lit-- and truly Russian Lit could be its very own post. You all know how I *feel* about allthingsrussian (reiterated in the nerd-faced naming of my apartment) so you have to understand how seriously I took this singular selection. I could use this spot to ask you why-the-heck have you not yet read Anna Karenina? Or stuff quote after quote of the humanity and whimsey of Gogol down your throat like a rancid Soviet potato ration. I could melt your hair with the heat of my passion for the gorgeous prose of Pasternak. I could shove Pushkin's poetry in your face...Push-kin would, quite literally, come to Shove...kin... (...sorry...)

Regardless, Comrades!
None of it could compare to the weight of my insistence that (she cringes slightly) if you read no other piece of Russian literature in your entire life, you must make certain it is The Master and Margarita. (But... that said, please read more. Please. I am certain my best friend Arielle who also loves allthingsrussian--including if not especially her Russian literature professor husband-- would be happy to make you a reading list even more insanely detailed than this one.)

The Master and Margarita (Мастер и Маргарита), is a novel by the great Mikhail Bulgakov which he began writing in 1928 and which was finally published by his widow in 1966, twenty-six years after his death, led to an international appreciation of his work. (In fact: Bulgakov had to rewrite the novel from memory after he burned the draft manuscript of this novel, and a destroyed manuscript of the original is an important element of the plot.) Initially banned by the Soviets, it is now regarded as a classic of Russian Literature, and many critics consider the book to be one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.

Its plot, woven around the premise of a visit by The Devil to a (fervently atheistic) 1930s Moscow in the Soviet Union. The premise was considered to be too far a departure from socialist realism (the state approved mode of writing. Fancy that.) But below the twisty, windy, delightfully bizarre-o plot, this great work is a withering critique of Soviet society and its literary establishment.

Thanks to picturesque descriptions (especially of old Jerusalem), lyrical fragments and outlandish "no rules" style,  the piece is appreciated far beyond it's philosophical undertones, transcending to a soaring example of "out-there," psychological, brain-melting storytelling, sardonic wit, high artistic flourish, as well as a pure literary technical prowess.

A frame narrative structure (a technique characteristic to story-within-a-story formats such as in The Princess Bride, for example, where a main narrative is presented for the purpose of setting the stage for a more emphasized second narrative), involves two characteristically related time periods and/or plot lines. In the case of The Master and Margarita: a retelling of the gospels alongside a description of contemporary Moscow.

In what I consider to be perhaps the most stunning opening chapter of any novel I have ever read,
the story begins in 1930s Moscow with two men, a literary publisher and a young poet, traversing the Patriot Ponds, only to be visited by a mysterious (and deeply creepy) "foreigner"  who confidently joins a conversation between the two men as they debate the existence of Jesus Christ and the Devil...the latter whom the Foreigner seems all too familiar with...

The narrative quickly evolves into an all-embracing indictment of the corruption, greed, narrow-mindedness, and widespread paranoia of Soviet Russia, with grit and character portraits worthy of a Scorcese film, and mind-bending phantasmagoric twists worthy of Charlie Kaufman (that I cannot chronicle here without 400+ spoiler alerts, so I will not). Why do I use cinematic parallels you ask? Because The Master and Margarita possesses dramatically cinematic scope, and all written the year after talking pictures were invented. You will fly over the USSR at midnight. You will meet a motley crew of subversive weirdos (which, among other things, includes a Puss-in-Boots-type gun slinging pussy cat), and go back in time to visit with Pontius Pilate of old Jerusalem. Bulgakov exploits art's capacity to give life to the unfathomable, the illogical, while simultaneously reminding us of art's parallel capacity to fulfill dreams. The results elicit terror, laughter, sadness, and wonder.

Published more than 25 years after Bulgakov's death, and more than ten years after Stalin's, the novel firmly secured Bulgakov's place among the pantheon of great Russian writers, and contributed a number of sayings to the Russian language, for example, "Manuscripts don't burn" and "second-grade freshness." It has also influenced anyone from Mick Jagger, to Pearl Jam, to Scottish band Franz Ferdinand's song "Love and Destroy."

What. Are. You. Waiting. For? 
Grab your cozy socks, 
brew that cup of hot tea, 
snuggle up in the duvet and 
     get reading. 
'Tis the season...


  1. Just re-read the post realising i just took all of your to English class.... apologies! Hope it is still interesting!! O_o



  2. "@alexandrasilber Do you suggest a specific translation of 'The Master and Margarita?' Also, you're right, covers do matter! Thank you."

    - From Twitter

  3. On translations.

    In translating literature from one language to another in GENERAL, it is important to convey not only the literal meaning of the story, but the culture, dialogue and thought flow, and essence of the characters being conveyed.

    Because Russia, but particularly SOVIET Russia is such an extra foreign mystery to Westerners, cultural conveyance is of even more import.

    Russians (and of course, subsequently, their LANGUAGE) are very... VERY direct in their everyday conversations. They say exactly what is needed, often coming across as harsh or rude to the smiley, overly polite English speaking world. But keep in mind,Russia is cold, you don't want to have long talks in the street. And in Soviet Russia people never wanted to display their true emotions or feelings in public, lest they be overheard, doubted, and subsequently punished for any reason. Out in the "world" Soviet Russians were (and in many ways still are) VERY suspicious. There was/is no sidewalk restaurant culture (anyone might overhear your lunch conversation!), shopping and socializing were/is not about personal pleasure but about necessity.

    HOWEVER, once a Russian trusts you and welcomes you into their HOME? Well, you might not ever make it out they will shower you in love and affection and pet names and the tsunami of emotional openness and truth we hear so prevalently in their music.


    You know who does this best?

    Husband and wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

    They nail it.

    Not only in the prose (which is *ga ga ga gorgeous*-- particularly in their recently released War and Peace, a translation that made the book READABLE and not dry at ALL)
    but crucially, in the dialogue.

    Also crucial is the footnotes. Their footnotes explain EVERYTHING you could ever want to know about what you are reading in a comprehensive but utterly concise way. Best footnotes out there.

    The bummer about the Penguin Classics edition of M&M? --
    1. the font is so tiny you get an ocular migraine.
    2. The main character's name is 'Bezdomny' which is the literal word for "Homeless"-- it is clearly a direct joke, like Dickens naming a bumbling workhouse officer Mr. Bumble. However, there is something about using the word "Homeless" as his actual moniker throughout the book that... irks me. Not sure why. Just personal preference I suppose.
    3. The cover...? The American cover anyway is (I'm so sorry Kasimir Malevich!!) not whimsical. It is "An Englishman in Moscow" and not basically not what I want...

    ...which is a black cat.

  4. Don't feel out of place naming your apartment. I call my den "Elsinore" and my garage "Versailles"...

    Anyway, I prefer Dostoyevsky. Loooove Crime and Punishment. "It's the blood, Mr. Rashloknikov"



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