I’ve been having one of those weeks. Far too busy for my liking, not enough sleep, and lots of places I have to be at specific times. I don’t enjoy rigidity. I need a good cup of tea and a long sit down!
However, in a reaction to this enforced schedule, I have allowed myself to be remarkably flexible with my reading. I hit the half way point of Doctor Zhivago yesterday, and have laid it down for a few days before resuming as I want some time to mull on it. I’ve started writing down my thoughts for the group read posting on the 16th, and I’m surprising myself with how much I have noticed, how many impressions have been etched onto my imagination, and how emotionally engaged I have become with it. Sometimes it’s good to be able to stop in medias res and just contemplate a little before moving on. I think this will be my method for reading classics in future. Unlike with big meals, where taking a break is a recipe for disaster (you’ve just got to keep shovelling it in and repent at leisure, I’m afraid), with hefty books, a little time to digest and mull is actually incredibly rewarding and a great gift to an overstretched mind.
In between illuminating thoughts on revolutionary Russia, I have been feeding my mind with something quite different instead. I am now half way through Stephen Benatar’s Wish Her Safe at Home, a New York Review Book Classic, which I am reading for The Literary Stew’s challenge (though I fear I may not finish in time) and my goodness, is it superb! Never before have I been invited so completely into the deterioriating mind of a delusional woman, and every time I begin reading, I become quite disoriented with trying to work out what is actual fact, and what is the fictional world Rachel Waring has built for herself. I am beginning to become frightened to keep going, as I have no idea what condition Rachel will be in by the end. It’s heartbreaking and indecently fascinating at the same time; train wreck reading at its best. It’s also an interesting book to be reading alongside something as powerful and sweeping as Doctor Zhivago, as though they appear very different on the surface, both are essentially about the strength of the mind and the ideas and beliefs we create for ourselves, and how differently Yuri Zhivago and Rachel Waring minds react to their circumstances is an intriguing exercise in psychology.
I also just read a very good non fiction book, all about the Astors and the make up of Old New York. After reading The Age of Innocence, I found myself intrigued by the landscape of 19th century New York that Wharton describes, filled with Brownstone mansions that no one apart from Mrs Manson Mingott dares to build above 34th street. There is little left, from what I can see, anyway, of these glory days of Old New York; most of the ostentatious mansions and other structures built by these Victorian settlors of modern day Manhattan have long been razed to the ground, a victim of the population increase and constant striving for innovation and modernity that so exemplifies New York. Pierpont Morgan’s house, now the Morgan Library, on Madison Avenue, is a rare survivor, and this chocolatey brown mini mansion, now surrounded by apartment buildings, gives a taste of what the Astor’s New York looked like.
Who knew that the Empire State Building stands on the site of the original Waldorf=Astoria, and the original Waldorf=Astoria stood on the site, in its turn, of the Astor’s family mansion? Intriguing stuff. When the Astors Owned New York is marvellous in describing just how influential the Astors were, how they ruled the social scene, how they razed blocks and blocks of housing to make way for their huge hotels and mansions, and how New York itself, fenced in by rivers, was forced to constantly be remodelled every twenty or so years to accomodate both new people and new fashions. What an ever changing city this is! It did make me a little sad, reading this, that so much of New York’s architectural and social history has been lost through the incessant tolling of the demolition ball, but it also reminded me that the spirit of New York as a place of flux, change and incessant new opportunities has been a part of its make up from the get-go, and really, streets of Brownstone mansions would not do it justice. I’d rather have the Empire State Building, symbol of commerce and opportunity and ambition, rise above the skyline, than be surrounded by endless lots of chocolate coloured mansions, no doubt housing yet more depressingly luxurious apartments I can’t afford. Modernity and innovation are the watchwords of New York, and even in the 189os, they were getting rid of mere twenty year old buildings, constructed at great expense, to make way for the new style of architecture, and homes and offices that better met the needs of the rapidly growing population of the city. If you want an insight into the New York of Edith Wharton’s novels, this is a fantastic place to start. I’d also very much welcome any other suggestions of New York history books anyone might have – I’d looked at Gotham by Edwin Burrows but I fear I may sprain my wrist attempting to read it!
Finally, in other news, the lovely Carolyn at A Few of My Favourite Books and I are planning a Virago Reading Week in January (actually this was all Carolyn’s idea and I muscled my way in on it) – expressions of interest would be welcome and then stay tuned for more details nearer the time!