There Once Lived A Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

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I used to glorify Russia, having never visited there. But I pictured the snow in sparkling white crystals, with troikas skimming over the surface, as if Russia was a fairy land made of ice palaces rather than a prison made of rooms so poorly heated a family of four cannot stay warm within the walls.

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya gives me a more accurate picture of Russia. A picture so bleak and hopeless I am grateful for every bad day I’ve ever had. Because all of them together could not equate with the life she has portrayed for the mother, also a poet, in her novella, Time is Night.

This mother’s own mother has schizophrenia. She has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital where at least she can receive a modicum of care. For the woman of the house has all she can do to manage her drunken son Andrey, freshly released from prison; her daughter, Alena, pregnant with her third child and no husband; her grandson, Tima, who counts on her for his daily existence yet lets her slide into the background when his mother appears at the door.

How can a simple apartment hold so many people? How can a poet’s salary provide enough food or money for the rent? How can a family survive under such conditions, and forgive me, such stupidity? For I know not how a woman can become pregnant over and over without a husband or a job. I know not how a son can rob from his mother when it is possible to live honorably. Maybe it is easy for me to say, as I have suffered under neither poverty nor such a hopeless existence.

This sentence, cried out by the mother as she is begging the ambulance driver to take her and her mother home, illuminates much:

On the other hand, if they get rid of me quickly, they can get a nice easy assignment: a family hacked to pieces by a drunken husband, for example.

This book comprised of three novellas is absolutely piercing. The description of horrors each family lives under is balanced by the writing of a humane and compassionate heart. It is no wonder that the novellas in There Once Lived A Woman Who Loved Her Children Until They Moved Back In have earned Ludmilla Petrushevskaya the recognition of being one of Russia’s best living writers. Her writing contributes much to my understanding of life in Russia, of lives led in a quiet desperation. This book has touched me deeply.

Praise from other sources:

“An important writer . . . Russia’s best-known . . . She’s a much better storyteller than her American counterparts in the seedy surreal. . . . Petrushevskaya’s stories should remind her readers of our own follies, illusions and tenderness.”
—Chicago Tribune

“Her suspenseful writing calls to mind the creepiness of Poe and the psychological acuity (and sly irony) of Chekhov.”
—More

[Petrushevskaya] is hailed as one of Rus­sia’s best living writers. This slim volume shows why. Again and again, in surprisingly few words, her witchy magic foments an unsettling brew of conscience and consequences.”
—The New York Times Book Review

“Petrushevskaya’s short stories—which use fairy tale imagery and allegory to comment on Russia’s Soviet past and corrupt present—combine Gogol’s depth of absurdity and Shirley Jackson paranoia, to disturbing effect…The rise of the tightly constructed ‘weird’ tales of Petrushevskaya, Victor Pelevin and Tatyana Tolstaya suggests a secure Soviet literary future.”
—NPR.org

“Anything but dull, the stories twist and peak in odd places. They create nooks in which the reader can sit and think: What does this mean?”
—Los Angeles Times

What The Lady Wants by Renee Rosen

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The story of Marshall Field’s phenomenal success, and adulterous affair, is given to us through the eyes of his mistress in this work of historical fiction.

Renee Rosen’s heroine, the real-life Delia Caton, brings us to Chicago in the glorious nineteenth century, beginning with the Great Chicago Fire and going on to the time it hosted the World’s Fair. Included in its history are the men I’ve heard about all my life: Swift, Palmer, Armour, and of course Field himself.

Marshall Field is a legend to any shopper who ever lived or visited Chicago. His magnificent store, now replaced by Macy’s on State Street, was second to none and forged through his indomitable spirit.

My very first job was at Marshall Field’s and Company. I remember clearly the black and white training video we had to watch before going on the floor as salespeople. His mantra was made very clear to us: “Give the lady what she wants.”

But I never knew that he had an affair with Delia Spencer Caton. An affair which lasted more than thirty years and caused plenty of distress, along with the joy, in their lives.

Nor did I know that the Loop earned its nickname because Marshall Field had the cable cars loop through that area of Chicago and stop in front of his store.

What The Lady Wants is a richly imagined recreation, interspersed with fact, of how their lives may have been. It is told through the eyes of Delia, and it is her perspective that is the focus.

I enjoyed it for the history of a city I’ve known all my life; others may enjoy it for the romance and scandal. In either case, we have a clearer picture of Marshall Field himself, and the city he helped build, once we turn the last page.

Sunday Salon: Post Read-a-thon Thoughts

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Because it was my most successful read-a-thon ever, and I went to bed at 3:15 for the first time since college, I didn’t go to church this morning. My husband is greeting the people at the sanctuary door without me; perhaps they have found someone else to stand by his side as it gets rather crowded around 9:00.

And I, feeling a bit selfish, slept in late and then determined to read the Word at least in my own living room. It comforts me.

As for the 24 Hour Read-a-thon…oh, my! I did complete one book, and began another. But, reading was not the highlight. It was reconnecting to old blogging friends via Twitter. Terri, Trish, and the unconquerable Andi, were in a flurry of tweets with me in the wee hours of the morning. It was so much fun to revisit friendships established in 2006.

Now I face a week with my husband’s birthday, report cards to prepare, and Halloween activities to do with my class. I look forward to it all, but doubt it can come to quite the heights of the past twenty-four hours.

Thank you, Andi, and thank you Heather, for all you did.

24 Read-a-thon Update #3

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The slippers are on, the husband’s gone to bed, and Samantha the kitty was just climbing up to read with me when I tried to snap her blurry picture.

Here’s a better one:

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And this, of a poor, bored kitty with nothing to read…

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It’s a good thing this is a read-a-thon because I’m reading a book which seems it will never end! I’m ready to abandon it for something translated. (i. e. more interesting)

24 Hour Read-a-Thon Update #1: “Give The Lady What She Wants”

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Those words have more to do with a very famous man in Chicago’s history than they do with the read-a-thon taking place today.

For before Macy’s became a poor replacement for Chicago’s favorite department store, Marshall Fields was the quintessential place to shop.

If my mother didn’t sew my clothes herself, of a quality which would be hard to replicate, she bought them at Marshall Fields. We made a day of it, going to the State Street store, with layers upon layers of floors and departments. There was anything available to buy that anyone could ever want, from French perfume to evening dresses to mattresses. There was even a notions department, for sewing things, and a foundations department for lingerie.

There were men running the elevator, dressed in red coats and white gloves, turning a brass wheel when you entered, and asking, “What floor, please, Ma’am?”

And Christmas wasn’t complete until we had dined under the enormous Christmas tree in the Walnut Room after viewing the windows on the streets. Each window fit a theme for the year, perhaps Cinderella, and the windows told the story in successive rows with mechanical figures doing, or making, something to fit the theme.

When Macy’s came, my sisters-in-law and other dear friends, cut up their Fields’ credit cards vowing never to return again. And really, though I still have mine for a store now defunct, the trip to the store on State Street is no longer worth the effort.

So why this tale of shopping? Because I am reading What The Lady Wants by Renee Rosen, and it is bringing back such happy memories as it tells the story of Marshall Field and his (previously unknown to me) extramarital affair with Mrs. Arthur Caton. Perhaps the book dwells a bit too much on Delia, but I am fascinated in learning more about the man who established this magnificent Chicago landmark. One which is missed to this day.

A proper review will be forthcoming when I finish the novel.

Eagerly Anticipating The 24 Hour Read-a-thon

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I could begin with Book Three of The Century of Giants trilogy by Ken Follett, which Dutton sent me to review before its publication on Sepetmber 16, 2014…

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Or, I could read the three novellas by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya which “tell disquieting and extreme stories of family that for almost two decades were censored by the Russian government,” sent to me this week from Penguin.

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Or, I could finish this book by Renee Rosen which tells of Marshall Fields’ life, because it brings me so utterly back to my youth in Chicago.

But no matter which book I choose, it will be a glorious celebration of Dewey’s 24 Hour Read-a-thon, an event I remember celebrating with her before she passed away many years ago.

In between reading, and writing comments for those readers on Team Hughes (as I did sign up for “cheerleading”), I will lead a discussion for our book club on The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And I will undoubtedly write what will prove to be a long string of posts for the event.

Happy reading, fellow ‘thoners.

An Inquiry Into Love and Death by Simone St. James (And, While We’re At It, Let’s Discuss Gothic Literature)

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“Well,” I thought to myself as I opened this novel, “I don’t usually read Gothic literature.”  But then I found myself enjoying the eerie escape on a cold, October night. I also found myself remembering Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca, and Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, both of which I have read at least twice because they so captured my interest.

In fact, there is a rather long list of literature in this genre that I have read with great pleasure:

  • The Pit and The Pendulum by Edgar Allen Poe
  • Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
  • Dracula by Bram Stoker
  • Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
  • Bleak House and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde
  • Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

So what categorizes a novel as Gothic literature? The following elements precisely:

  • a virginal maiden
  • an older foolish woman
  • a hero
  • a tyrant or a villain
  • a stupid servant
  • clergy which is ineffective or evil
  • and the setting as a character itself, usually a building with secrets of its own

That said, I hardly expect Gothic literature written today to meet the glorious drama of classics in the past. But An Inquiry Into Love and Death by Simone St. James has been a fun treat this Halloween season. If you are interested in a story which takes place in a haunted, English village, with a maiden who is trying to calm the ghost of Walking John while discovering the cause of her Uncle’s death, and an Inspector with whom she falls in love, this would be just the ticket.

You can also read about it here at A Work in Progress, and here at Indextrious Reader, two blogs I admire.

Thoughts On A Quiet Sunday Evening

If you’re on Twitter at all, even once every other day would be more than I, you’ll see all kinds of new tweets from me. Only, they’re incorrect.

In the switching of platforms from Blogger to WordPress, my imported posts somehow became all smooshed: the text is cramped, the pictures are off to one side or another, and I am in the process of editing over 1,100 posts. When I click “update”, it sends out a tweet that I’ve posted something new when I haven’t.

So that’s been fun.

In other news, I’ve been preparing for German Literature Month this November. I have on my side table a slim volume of Thomas Mann’s book, Black Swan. It apparently “reveals his (Mann’s) mastery of psychological analysis and his profound perceptions into the mysterious realm where the physical and the spiritual meet.”  I’m also reading Cornelia Funke’s book, Inkheart, to my class. It is a read-aloud in which they are fully absorbed.

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But, what I really want to discover is Buddenbrooks. 

First published in 1900, when Thomas Mann was twenty-five, Buddenbrooks is a minutely imagined chronicle of four generations of a North German mercantile family–a work so true to life that it scandalized the author’s former neighbors in his native Lubeck. As he charts the Buddenbrooks’ decline from prosperity to bankruptcy, from moral and psychic soundness to sickly piety, artistic decadence and madness, Mann ushers the reader into a world of rich vitality, pieced together from births and funerals, weddings and divorces, recipes, gossip, and earthy humor. (Vintage back cover)

I’m wondering if any of you would care to read it with me? We could take all of November, and I would love to share the experience with reading friends.

So tomorrow, thanks to Christopher Columbus, will be a day off of work. A day to enjoy pumpkin pancakes and pork sausage with apples, a day to read by my front window ’til dark.

I am already relishing the time…

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