I confess I cheered. Why? Because I’ve been working on a book for a long time now. It kept me company during my time as a caregiver, and I always called it my “winter book” because I always seemed to go back to it when it began to snow.
It's a time travel romance about a young woman named Sasha Kharkov, who goes back to Russia in February 1917, just in time to stumble into the February Revolution. She's not quite sure why she's there, but she thinks it's to help her grandfather, who is just a boy, and change an important piece of her family's history.
The family comes from Kharkov, in Ukraine, and that’s where this video is from. This just happened. What you’re seeing is the people of Kharkov tearing down a statue of Lenin, standing up for the right of Ukraine to be an independent state. It’s a warning to Putin and his bully boys, and it brought tears to my eyes because I know what this would mean to Sasha and her family.
From the article:
Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov sees nothing wrong or criminal in this act of vandalism and said the criminal case was closed since the governor swiftly issued an order to demolish that monument.
“Lenin? Let him fall. As long as the people did not suffer,” Avakov wrote on his Facebook page. “If only this bloody communist idol, leaving, did not add to his victims count.”
Law enforcements were given orders “to protect the people, not the idol,” Avakov added.
This event gives me the epilogue I’ve been looking for. So in honor of the fall of Lenin in Kharkov, Ukraine, I am going to share a bit of the novel, still in progress.
The house was dark and silent. Everywhere she looked, Sasha saw shadowy forms hunched like great animals in the darkness. All the furniture was covered with sheets and dust covers, but the room, even so abandoned, seemed familiar to her. She went to the fireplace and reached up to tug at the sheet that covered the painting above it. It caught for a moment, and then drifted down to pool into the shadows on the floor like an exorcised ghost. The portrait was of her great grandmother, Natasha Kharkov, in her tobacco-colored velvet gown and the famous amber necklace. This was her family’s home. Sasha was standing in Kharkov House in St. Petersburg. .
Suddenly from the hallway, she heard a sharp sneeze that made her jump. She stepped out of the parlor to confront an old woman, who gave a yip of distress and fell on her knees, crossing herself over and over.
“Oh Blessed Mother, Oh Holy Saints forgive me, forgive me!” the woman moaned. “Forgive me Madame, I know I did wrong but I– I thought you wouldn’t need it anymore!” Coughing nervously the whole time, she produced an object from inside her coat and held it out to Sasha, averting her eyes as if Sasha was too hideous to look at. Then Sasha remembered that she had a growling bear on her tee shirt so the effect must have been pretty startling.
Sasha took the thing – a necklace she guessed, from the feel of it – from the woman’s trembling hand. “Where did you get this?” she asked sternly.
“May the Holy Mother forgive me, I know I did wrong but it was so beautiful and you weren’t going to use it anymore! You’re dead! All the Blessed Martyrs forgive and protect me, but you are dead! I saw you die this afternoon.”
“This afternoon…” Sasha realized suddenly that the woman had taken her for Natasha. “How dare you steal from the dead?”
The woman began to weep, rubbing her eyes and nose, smearing her face with tears and mucous. “I am so sorry, Madame, so sorry. I came back and took it because I thought no one would miss it. So sorry…”
Sasha frowned. “You did a very wrong thing,” she said sternly, figuring that her best bet was to play along. “Had you kept it I would have haunted you all your days and brought evil luck to your children’s children unto the seventh, uh, generation. Now leave this house and don’t ever return!” And she raised her arms in a sort of Dracula-meets-Frankenstein’s-monster gesture, just to emphasize the threat. She only just managed to keep herself from adding “Booga-booga!”
The woman scrambled to her feet and ran from the house as fast as she could. She didn’t even close the door in her haste.
Suddenly it wasn’t all that funny anymore. There was something sad about the house, something abandoned about it that sucked the humor out of Sasha’s little joke. She walked slowly to the door and closed it behind the woman, locking it with deliberate movements. Her hands felt disconnected from her body. Slowly she raised her hand until it caught the moonlight that spilled into the house through beveled windowpanes. The thing in her hand was made of amber. The old woman had given her the gold and amber necklace; the one Roman had not been able to find when he prepared to leave Russia. Sasha was holding her great grandmother’s lost amber necklace.
There was a noise behind her. Sasha turned to look, her eyes following the line of the stairwell to the top where a boy stood, clad in a nightshirt and holding a sword.
My lists are by no means complete. I’ve read a lot in my sixty-two years, and much of it sticks. It’s particularly hard for me to break down the non-fiction that has stayed with me because there’s such a broad range of topics represented. I’ve already mentioned The Proud Tower and The Guns of August, both by Barbara Tuchman, and Carrington: Letters and Extracts from Her Diaries, edited by David Garnett in an earlier TBTSWY post, and I really recommend all of them, particularly if you’re a student of the 1850-1950 era as I am.
I’m currently making notes and an outline for a novel that takes place in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. A big part of it will play out in Weimar Berlin, and Voluptuous Panic, by Mel Gordon, is the first thing I turned to when I started doing research. The first edition blew me away, and the revised one is even better. If you are as fascinated by this time and place as I am, you will probably love this book. And if you don’t know much about Weimar Berlin, you’re probably going to be really shocked by what you see and read here. I knew a lot about it, and I was a little shocked.
Also part of this era, though somewhat earlier: Nicholas and Alexandra, by Robert K. Massie. This is a big one for me. I read and re-read it some 35 or so years ago, fascinated by the looming disaster that was WWI era Russia. It’s a tragedy that spawned a great many fake Romanovs, and that is a theme of the novel I mentioned above.
More from this era: The Dream King, Wilfred Blunt. I read this one summer day when my best friend was on vacation in Wisconsin. I read it because I love the era, of course, but also because I love Wagner’s music, and finally, and possibly least importantly, I had a crush on someone who was a Wagnerite, and a fan of Ludwig’s. That didn’t last, but my love of the time and the music did, as did my love for this book. I reread it recently and was just as captivated by it as I was all those years ago. Oddly, I ran into someone who was carrying a biography of Ludwig at an estate sale, and recommended The Dream King to her.
My Mother’s House and Sido, Colette — This might fit into the fiction category, but I tend to think of it as biography because while Colette surely embellished these stories, they were all drawn from her life and her memories of her mother, the unforgettable Sido. I sought out this book because I had seen a one-woman show on PBS entitled My Mother’s House which was essentially an actress dressed as Colette, playing a script taken from these stories. I don’t recall the name of the actress, and I never saw the play again, but I will never give up my copy of this book. It gives me joy and comfort.
Cocteau: A Biography, Steegmuller — I have another reason to thank Colette. When I was searching the biography section for My Mother’s House, I found this biography sitting beside it. Alphabetical-by-author is responsible for that happy accident. I picked it up, read it. Fell deeply and completely in love with Jean Cocteau, and think of him as something of an artistic guardian angel. I still sometimes sign things with a little star the way he did. He and Colette were close friends. Another lovely coincidence; I think she led me to him.
Veering away from history and biography, I have to cite Messages from Michael, by Chelsea Quinn Yarboro. Many would consider this fiction. Frankly I pretty much do too, but it meant something to me at one time, and I still tend to think of people the way they are described in this book. Sometimes it helps me understand them. I don’t know if I believe in reincarnation or not, but if it exists, there are worse ways to think about it.
The Divine King in England, by Margaret Murray, is one of the strangest books I think I’ve ever read. Murray wrote a lot of books about paganism and witchcraft, but The Divine King in England is an exploration of a common belief that gods can be and are incarnate, in the bodies of kings, or their chosen representatives. This isn’t as nifty as it sounds since a divine king is also a sacrifice. Some examples of more popular fictions that explore this notion are “Lammas Night” by Katherine Kurtz, which I mentioned in another post, and the film The Wicker Man. (No, not the remake. Please to seek out the original.)
The Hot Zone, Preston — I don’t think any work of fiction has ever managed to make me as uneasy as this book did. It’s the story of Ebola, and as such is pretty timely. Reading about mad cow disease also gave me the whim whams, but Preston seems to have a genius for keeping you reading when all you really want to do is hide under the bed.
The Cats House, Walker — If you’re a cat lover you will probably adore this book. It’s a photo book about a home that has been completely remade for the dozens of cats in the family. It’s a real delight, and might just give you (and your cats) some ideas.
Pleasures of the Japanese Bath: Furo, Grilli — One of the things that gives me comfort is reading books about decorating, and specifically about the bath. A beautiful bathroom makes me go weak at the knees. This book, about the glories of bathing in Japan is one of the few that survived my culls after my parents died. I go back to it all the time.
When I was thirteen, my parents got a copy of Private View, by Robertson, Russell, and Lord Snowdon, about the contemporary British art scene. I spent hours poring over that book; I’d never seen art like this (We had a great many art books at home, but they were all pretty traditional.) and it quite literally opened my eyes to a world of contemporary art that I’d never even imagined. It introduced me to David Hockney, Patrick Proctor, Barbara Hepworth, Lucian Freud, and a whole lot of other artists. I still own that book, and it still seems fresh to me.
Back when the internet was a couple of services like AOL, I had a subscription to one called GEnie, that was owned by General Electric. I frequented the rubber stamping and mail art forums, and discovered The World of Donald Evans, by Eisenhart, through the recommendations of a number of other forum members. When I started creating Gekko, this was one of my primary source books. I still love it, but it’s a mute accusation that I haven’t made any kind of hilariously subversive art in far too long.
So I have… not exactly a superstition, but a thing I do when I write a novel. I find myself a talisman. This could be anything that has some sort of meaning in terms of the story. For example, when I wrote “White Rabbit” I found a coin from the reign of Charles II. (For anyone who doesn’t know, one of the characters was supposed to be Old Rowley.) For “Rough Trade” I found a pair of gnome salt and pepper shakers. For “Suffer the Little Children” Glinda and Jim gave me a beautiful print of Victorian London that I need to put on my wall. I have a lot of little things that make me feel physically connected to my novels.
Like I said, it isn’t exactly a superstition, but the last one I wrote and submitted, Son and Heir, got rejected this week. Apart from being kind of bummed about that, I also realized that I’d never found a talisman for it. I even mentioned it to Glinda. I was certain that I’d find one before I finished the story but I never did. And look what happened!
No, I don’t seriously believe that this is the reason it was rejected. I’m not insane or stupid. But what I do know is this: I’ll feel better about the story, and about sending it out again, once I have my talisman, my touchstone. I’d been looking for something related to Vienna or “The Third Man” because that’s a theme that runs through the novel. But tonight I suddenly realized that what I really wanted was a Celtic knot ring. There’s a wedding in the book, and one of the characters is Irish. A Celtic knot wedding ring would be the perfect talisman. So I went online and found a reasonably priced one, and I’ve ordered it. I think now I can feel good about the story again. I’ll have a focus
Yeah, it’s probably silly, but it’s my thing, it’s how I like to work, it’s my way of connecting to the story in a physical way. One thing I do know: I’ll never finish another novel before I have my talisman for it. And in the end, I’ll have an interesting and eccentric collection of objects that have deep meaning to me.
The other day I shared a post that had originally appeared on Facebook, about books that stayed with me for whatever reason. Most of them were favorites, though not all. When I expanded it here on my blog, it seemed to me that the discussion was bigger than just a list of ten or twenty books. I think it’s also about what we look for in books. Mostly I think this applies to fiction, though I’m already thinking of doing a post where it both will and won’t. (Yes, I know I’m being rambly and confusing, also parenthetical, so I’ll just move on here…)
What I thought I’d talk about today are the genres that I return to over and over. Genres are slippery things. My favorite ones are fantasy and science fiction, but they’re hardly discrete, there’s always a lot of overlap between them, and in turn they can often overlap into horror. There are a lot of sub-genres floating around here as well, and like everyone I have sub-genres I read more often than others. However, if I was to try to break down my reading by sub-genres I’d be here all night, and someone would take issue with the way I’d categorized at least one of the books in my list. So let’s just call this my list of Fantasy/SF books that have stayed with me.
I talked about Tolkien on the original post, so I won’t belabor that. But one of his contemporaries, and friends, C. S. Lewis, wrote a series that I loved when I first read it. Ah, you thought I was going to talk about Narnia, didn’t you? Nope, I’m thinking of the space trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. I haven’t reread it since I first encountered it back in college, but reading it was an amazing experience for me. So much so that I really don’t want to reread it. I’m afraid it won’t hold up.
The same is true of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy. Yes, I know there are more books, but I never read them. I read the trilogy in school for a “Science Fiction as Literature” class with a remarkable, and amiable professor named Tom Hoberg. I believe it’s where I met, Barbara, one of my dearest friends, too. The trilogy was being sold as a children’s series, but as Professor Hoberg so aptly said, “I defy any child to understand this third book.”
I was reading in this genre in grammar school. One of my favorite books of those years was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I did eventually read the next two books, but never the fourth. And these days, I’ll go back to Wrinkle, but not the others.
It’s been more than thirty-five years, but I remember exactly where I found my used copy of Re-Birth, by John Wyndham. There was a used bookstore on Montrose, just off of Milwaukee, and the book was on a shelf near the front window. (I have a freakish visual memory.) I devoured that book, and the very first thing I took from it was a passion for the idea of telepathy. The subject still interests me, but the deeper lesson I gleaned from this book was how dangerous it can be to be different.
I couldn’t get through high school without reading Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and I fell in love with the book for about six months, but the Heinlein that stays with me is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It’s a funny, surprisingly humane book coming from someone like Heinlein who had an agenda that I still think of as a little questionable. I think I need to reread it.
Lammas Night by Katherine Kurtz, has been out of print since God was a boy. I still have my mass market paperback copy which is falling apart now because I’ve reread it so many times. It’s a story about using magic to help defeat Hitler, and it draws on the mythology of the divine king. It’s one of those books which, even if I could get a copy for my Kindle, I’d keep in hard copy too. Even a hard copy that’s going to bits. It speaks to the mythmaker in me.
Moonheart was the first Charles de Lint novel I read, and I still think it’s his best. I found the mass market paperback at Kroch’s and Brentano’s Wabash street store, and though I didn’t know a single thing about it, I bought it anyway. I got my friends to read it, they fell in love too. Three of us (Karen, Glinda, and myself) ordered hard cover copies from the UK for the then astronomical price of $25. De Lint’s world is so rich and fully realized that as I read, I truly believe in the magic.
The Left Hand of Darkness was the book that really introduced me to the idea that gender could be a fluid thing, androgyny a real state of being, and how to view humanity from the outside. An absolute jewel of a book.
William Gibson’s Neuromancer absorbed me for months. I wanted to inhabit cyberspace. I still sort of do. My first cyberpunk book.
The Mists of Avalon by Bradley, was a curious book that enthralled me all the way up to the section told from Gwenhwyfar’s point of view. She lost me there three times. On the fourth (and I promised myself last) try, I powered through the section and finished the book. I’m glad I did, I enjoyed it, but the thing that really stays with me is how completely it fell apart when she was telling the story of Gwenhwyfar.
The Once and Future King, by T. H. White was my very first Arthurian novel, and remains the standard by which all others are judged. And I’ve read (or tried to read) a lot of them. It held my interest even as I sat in a hospital waiting room while my father was having surgery. In fact I think it actually helped me through that. Even if I hadn’t loved it, I’d be grateful. But I did and do love it.
I’m not going to go any further because I realized that there are so many other books I could list here that the list itself would become pointless. I have another couple of posts in mind. I hope I’m not boring anyone.
There’s a meme going around on Facebook, and I got tagged twice, once rather parenthetically and once directly. I’d planned to do it anyway, but midway through my first try, I lost the post, and gave up on the whole thing. I came up with a list of ten, as directed, but kept on thinking about the subject, and about what books mean to me both as a writer and as a human being, so I thought it might be a good thing to bring that Facebook post here and expand on it a bit, talk about not just what books have stayed with me and why, but what sorts of books I actively seek out. I think this might end up being a multi-entry thread, which is fine. I need to post here more often.
Anyway, let’s start with some books that have stuck with me. In this case they’re books I’ve liked or loved. In no real order, mind you.
1 – Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy — honestly you didn’t think I’d forget this, did you? I read it for the first time in college, coming to it late because I was just that stubborn. Everyone was reading it in HS and I dug my heels in. And there is a lesson for all the rest of you not to be so fucking bull-headed about not trying something because it’s popular. K? I read it in a brilliant class called “The Quest in Western Literature.” I remember taking the bus to Andersonville to meet Pam for lunch, and I stepped off the bus in tears because I had just read the Song of the Entwives. And there was Pam, waiting for me in tears because she’d just read it, too. You don’t forget books that do that to you.
2 – Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicle — Six books that have never, ever gotten old no matter how many times I read them. Six books that continue to delight, infuriate, confound, and educate me. Barbara had urged me to read them for a long time (she swears it was the other way around, who really knows anymore?) but I held off because I was working at a bookstore at the time and was sick of the sight of books. (Long story) I finally broke down and bought Game of Kings, the first book, and started reading, and my first thought was: Why is this guy the hero of six books? He’s awful!
I have this rule that says if a book doesn’t grab me in the first 50-100 pages, depending on the length of the book, it goes in the To-Sell pile. I got to page 100, approximately, while I was having lunch by myself at Hoolihans in Woodfield. I was sitting in the bar reading, and in the middle of the Don Luis scene, I got the joke, and howled. Everyone in the bar turned to look at me. What did I care? I had just fallen utterly and hopelessly in love with Francis Crawford, and his story.
I got friends to read them. That’s what friends do, and being fans we got hooked up with the Lymond APA which had so many members it came around here about once every 12 to 14 months which for new fans was not nearly often enough. So after discussing it with Karen, Barbara, and Jody, I wrote to Dorothy Dunnett and asked her for her blessing to produce a letterzine devoted to the books. She responded quickly and graciously, and “Marzipan and Kisses” was born. Karen and I edited the letterzine for a number of years, and it spawned a sister letterzine entitled “Whispering Gallery.” (WG is now the only Dunnett zine being published as far as I know.) So you see, my association with Lymond is long and happy. I read the books every few years, and there’s always something new for me.
3 – Here’s an odd one: Schulmann’s Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen. A week ago, I wouldn’t have put this on the list since I hadn’t read it since 1970, and while bits of it had stayed with me, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to list it here until I reread it this week. It was on sale for the Kindle and I thought, “Let’s see if it holds up.” It does and it doesn’t, but the reason why I’m adding it to this list is because I saw quite clearly, how my initial reading colored a great deal of my life, and my attitude towards gender roles, marriage, children, and the way society is set up to penalize women no matter how they choose to live. This book became part of the way I viewed the world, and if that’s not staying with me, I
4 – Davenport, Tatlin! Nobody writes like Guy Davenport. Nobody. His prose is difficult, it’s brain frot, dense and erotic. I love the story “The Dawn at Erewhon” but it’s a passage from “Robot”, a story about cave paintings, which begins: “The Drachenberg bears, their jaws full of shadows…” which stays with me and touches a place so deep I can’t even name it. It is mysterious and dark in the way of earth, magical as art can be.
5 – And speaking of stylists: Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy. Even if I didn’t love the story and the characters, and the setting, I would love her prose. But I do love her characters, and their love story, and those around them who both suffer and prosper because of them. Taylor gave me the book for Christmas a few years ago, and I have read it each year since. The story of Rupert and Istvan, and their adopted family continues in The Mercury Waltz, and will conclude in a third volume. Soon, I hope.
7 – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Pirsig. When I was going to school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I had a teacher named Bill Brincka, who is now most remembered for his horticultural work. But I was mad about him, and because he recommended this book I read it because that’s what adoring young women do with their first older man. I have reason to be grateful to him for many, many things, but above all, I think, my love for this book and what it says to me about living. As soon as I unearth one of my copies, I’m sending it to my niece who is in Indonesia with the Peace Corps. From an old hippie girl to a young one.
8 – Barbara Tuchman‘s The Proud Tower, and The Guns of August. I feel safe taking these as one because this is one long story of the fall of the old monarchies into the inferno of WWI. My fascination with this era seems endless, and Tuchman took me into it and let me live there. I’m about due for another reading of these books.
9 – Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte. I read this in grammar school. I didn’t realize then how awful these people really were. What I did realize was a love for transgressive passions that’s stayed with me and has informed not just my reading but my writing.
After I started discussing the list with friends I came up with another group of favorites that I cherish:
Little Women, Alcott — Was there ever a book so beloved of young girls? Did any woman of my generation read this book without wanting, however briefly, to be part of the March family? To be one of Marmee’s “little women?”
The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot — Not a book in the sense that these others are, but so dense as to be virtually a novel in a long poem. “The Wasteland” is, I think, the poem of the twentieth century. Coming from someone who actually tends to prefer the work of W. H. Auden, that’s high praise.
Daddy Long Legs, Jean Webster — It has virtually nothing to do with the Fred Astaire film. There is no dancing in this book. It’s simply a story of a young woman who is given a chance at an education and grabs for it with both hands. Nothing could appeal more to a bookish girl, I think.
Don’t Knock the Corners Off, Carolyn Glyn — Hard to find these days. I first read it in high school, and reread it yearly for a couple of decades. It’s a British novel about another bookish girl who doesn’t fit into the educational system, and I could identify with that. She doesn’t make friends easily and is, in general, a misfit. I found that it comforted me through a lot of unpleasant times. A few years ago I sent my copy to a young woman who was being bullied at her school. I hope it comforted her.
The Bible — Yes, I’ve read it. Do I think it’s the revealed word of God? No. I think a lot of people with a lot of different agendas wrote these books, and it was political expediency that eventually pulled the disparate bits together into the form we have today. Your mileage may vary and that’s fine, I’m not going to argue about it because it’s your right to see it as divine. What I will say is that it’s an extraordinary work of literature, and so central to western thought that it really should be required reading though without any baggage either for or against. Just take it as a piece of literature, and understand how it has come to color so much of society.
Carrington: Letters and Extracts from Her Diaries, Garnett — If you’ve ever seen the film, Carrington, you probably think “Oh is that the dreary woman who hung around with that gay guy with the beard?” No. She was not dreary. That film is the main reason why I carry a grudge against Christopher Hampton. Carrington was a bright, funny, earnest, charming young woman who was a member of the younger circle of the Bloomsbury group. She was a painter, but never achieved much fame in her lifetime, and she devoted much of that lifetime to author Lytton Strachey in spite of the fact that, yes, he was gay, and she was deeply ambivalent about sexuality. But to focus on that ambivalence is to utterly ignore everything about her that so enchanted Strachey and his friends. She was another talented, interesting young woman who didn’t quite fit in. Do you see a trend here?
There are a lot of others, and I’m saving a whole group for a later post. If you feel moved to do so, talk to me about books which have similarly affected you.
And in case you’re wondering, no, I’m not an Amazon.com associate. Those links are for you, not me.