A bit of a mishmash

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!

44 comments

    1. Laura, thank you for that wonderful link – I fully plan on doing that walk, it looks so interesting and would take me to places I’d not normally go.

      I hope you will manage to squeeze a VMC in, Laura!

  1. Love the idea of a Virago Reading Week. I rescued a couple of green Viragos from the Waterloo Bridge Market on my London holiday two years ago, and I have yet to read them. Here’s hoping I’ll be able to squeeze one in that week!

  2. Oh Rachel, you make me laugh! All I did was throw the idea of a Virago week out there in hopes that someone more competent than me would take it up. So I was very glad when you were interested in doing it with me, otherwise it’s doubtful I would have gone ahead with it by myself. I have many ideas I only half finish, sadly.

    I love the picture of the tea cup (maybe some Earl Grey would be just the thing now) and love to mull the classics over, whenever I reread Austen especially, I start making notes.

    1. Well Carolyn, credit where credit is due! I wouldn’t have even come up with the idea, so all the gratitude has to go to you!

      Isn’t it nice? I wish I took more notes when reading. Often I have wonderful ideas and then come to write them down later and they’ve gone completely. I should always carry a notebook I think!

  3. A Virago reading week is a lovely idea. I have a little VMC OOP (Virago Modern Classics Out of Print) week of my own scheduled for later this month, but I’ll be more that ready to peruse my green shelves again in January. And do you know, you might have even inspired me to start my journey through Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. Maybe. Oh for more reading hours!

    1. Oh how lovely, Jane! The Out of Print week sounds especially interesting, I’ll have to make sure I read all your posts! Good to hear you won’t be Viragoed out though – it will be lovely to have to read along with us. I quite agree – I never seem to get enough time to read!

  4. I just read and enjoyed another book about the Gilded Age (Greg King’s A Season of Splendour) and that struck me so forceably…how so few of the ‘palaces’ these people built have been torn down (and how money really doesn’t buy happiness!) I liked your observation about the Morgan Library being a rare survivor — I’ll have to look at it in a new light if I ever visit it again. (I read a fascinating book, btw, about the fascinating woman who was Morgan’s first librarian.)

    1. I think I saw that in the library, Audrey – it does sound wonderful and I’ll have to pick it up next time I go in. I have his book on the Russian Imperial court which was very good so I presume this will be just as informative! Thank you for the recommendation. And once I have been to the Morgan Library (I am going tomorrow) I shall have to look up the other book you mentioned as well!

    2. Oops…I meant to say how MANY of the palaces have been torn down…
      I hope you enjoy these books if you find them. I’m going to look for Greg King’s book on the Russian imperial court, now!

  5. I love the idea of Virago week too!
    Poor you though, you sound all stressed out and rather flat of battery… i think you need that tea, and maybe a large slice of cake. Yum!
    Have you seen this trailer for the new Jane Eyre movie which is coming up? I know you are a fellow fan of the best book of all time so i thought i would alert you! I am always a little scared to watch film adaptations but this one looks pretty good – suitably dark and bleak, I don’t like it when the tale is over-sweetened.
    http://movies.yahoo.com/movie/1810161778/video/22939910
    It sounds like we’ve been reading twins this week as I too am reading Dr Zhivago and have finished Wish Her Safe At Home. Must post about it! What a gripping book, you are quite right It’s one of those novels (of which there are alarmingly many) where I start off thinking the heroine endearingly quirky, and am just beginning to identify closely with the insights I get into her mind and thoughts and to think her perhaps not dissimilar to me, when I suddenly realise she’s completely bananas. Oops. I wonder if you have finished it yet. I just felt like I could cry at the end of the book.
    Hope you’ve had that cup of tea and sit down by now!

    1. Good!
      I know, I know – I just need some sleep! But when you have to get up at 6am every morning, no amount of sleep seems to be enough!

      This trailer looks GOOD – I LOVE Judi Dench in the role of Mrs Fairfax! I also like how young Jane Eyre is, that’s a good sign. I am excited for it!!! Though I did think the last BBC one was very good so…and it’s hard to top Toby Stephens..hello!

      We ARE reading twins! I had exactly the same reaction. I was singing while hoovering my apartment today and I thought, oh-oh, first sign of madness! I have nearly finished and I look forward to reading your thoughts about it…I am not sure what to write about it yet, I’ll have to let it sit with me.

      I am going to have a cup of tea in just a minute and I am looking forward to it!

  6. A Virago Reading Week is just the push I need to read some of those green VMCs languishing on my shelves … (I picked up a copy of Peking Picnic by Ann Bridge, which I think would make perfect reading as, of course, I associate Ann Bridge with you, her champion).

    I am lusting after Wish Her Safe at Home and bound to do so more once you post about it.

    Mmm, tea.

    1. Glad to hear it Claire! Ooooh Peking Picnic! You are in for such a treat!

      I know you would love Wish Her Safe at Home – it’s such fascinating book and especially so for those of us interested in feminist readings of novels!

  7. Very interesting post about the changing face of New York buildings. I like preserving history, but sometimes I wonder if current society hasn’t gotten a bit too obsessed with keeping all of the past and lost its drive for general innovation. Seems you can’t build a new style of house anywhere now without excessive consultations with planning people/buying your own huge plot of land. We need innovation as well as preservation and could do with working out how to keep the two in balance.

    Loved hearing about your forays into Zhivago and Wish Her Safe at Home, which I think Aarti at Booklust reviewed and made sound very interesting. I might try and brave Zhivago again next year. The idea of a Virago reading week.

    1. Well you make a very valid point, Jodie – sometimes I think it’s important to allow for space to build new buildings that better serve our needs and also that are more environmentally friendly, but at the same time, I love historical buildings for their beauty and for the social history they contain. It’s a tricky balance!

      Glad to hear it on all accounts! It will be a pleasure to have you read along with our reading week, and I am certain that you would love Wish Her Safe at Home.

  8. I haven’t read a VMC since A Very Great Profession in August, so I’m interested in a week of make-up reading! Glad to hear that you’re enjoying Dr. Z so much; I’ll be tackling it this weekend.

    1. A Very Great Profession is an excellent book! I’m glad you want to read more VMCs – fantastic! I hope you enjoy Dr Z as much as I currently am – certainly a very meaty and rewarding read.

  9. Just my cup of tea- or, I wish this lovely cup was my cup for tea.

    Our internet service is finally back and I am doing some quick catch-up before going outdoors to tackle the ever falling leaves. I remembered reading this great post earlier yesterday, meant to get back to it, and when I did . . . ahhhh, technology. The good news as that once I rejoined cyberworld, you, Rachel, and your blog were still awaiting.

    Great post filled with oh-so-much. The book about the Astors sounds particularly interesting to me. I love anything historical and will likely seek this one out. Good luck with the rest of your reads and challenges, and, if you haven’t already, I hope you get to the top of the Empire State Building, which seems so small these days, but, is still such a wonder for all its history.

    Thanks, Rachel.

    1. It’s a very pretty cup, isn’t it? I love pretty tea things!

      Bless you Penny! I’m glad your internet is back, there’s nothing more annoying than a dropped connection! I am sure you would find the Astors book wonderful and very informative, and perhaps it will make you want to come to New York! I have been to the top before but want to again at some point – I will get around to it one of these days!

  10. I slightly struggled to get started with Dr. Zhivago, but once I was into it, I started liking it a lot. And I usually hate Russian novels! I’m looking forward to the discussion.🙂

    1. Me too, but after a bit of a confusing and frustrating start (I can never remember anyone’s names) I am loving it! Hopefully this will change your dislike of Russian literature Jenny! You will want to read everything!

  11. Such a powerful summary today, Rachel! I was so impressed with your thoughts about old New York and your current reading. You may be weary physically but the writing hasn’t dropped off!

    The Virago proposal had me rushing to my bookshelves to spy out all my old copies – really easy as their green covers are so identifiable. I so hope some of your January list will include some of mine. Well, I know you’ve mentioned quite a few already.

    I’m willing to bet that this weekend you’ll be restoring your strength with an exciting outing. Looking forward to hearing about it. And I hope you won’t continue being so tired for too long.

    1. Oh Chrissy, you are kind! Thank you, what a lovely compliment!

      So glad you will be joining in with the Virago reading week – it is promising to be very good so far! I don’t have my collection with me, but the library as an extensive collection so I should be able to read some fantastic books I hope!

      Oh yes, I have had lots of fun this weekend – more details will come later on in the week! Thank you – I have had a lovely relaxing day today which is just what I needed.🙂

  12. I just knew you would enjoy Wish Her Safe at Home! Not one you’re likely to ever forget, Rachel.

    Your wonderful descriptions of New York reminded me of how much I adore Eloise…oh to live in a grand hotel! One of my guilty pleasures is to grab my very own copy of Eloise at Christmastime and pretend. Try to see it if you haven’t already.

    Virago Reading Week in January…yes please!

    1. No indeed Darlene! It is a disturbing book in many ways!

      I really want to read Eloise! I must get hold of the book. I walked past the Plaza yesterday as it happens! I thought it would be wonderful to live there!!

      Glad you’re up for Reading Week Darlene! I thought you would be!🙂

  13. I’ve gotten away lately from reading my poor Viragos–and after I’ve collected so many, so I will look forward to your reading week! Hope things have slowed down a bit for you.

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