Monday, March 26, 2018

Adventures in Reading! A Reading in Retirement Blogpost

This blog post chronicles my reading from the time I left for Budapest til today. It illustrates how different reading in retirement is for me.  I do a lot more meandering and read a wider variety of books.  Part of this is because I was travelling for a little over half the time.  But more about this later.

When I go to Budapest I read from my Kindle rather than take books with me.  But I always bring a book to read on the plane and to leave at Apartment Andrei.  This year it was Nicole Krauss's Great House, a book I had heard a lot about but never read.  It is very, very good--complex and enjoyable.  But it isn't, to my mind, great.  (Tony tells me that my most common response to a book is "good but not great."  Oh well.)  I think my unwillingness  to see it as "great" is partly because I had heard such amazing things about it.  So maybe I was just expecting too much.  But it punches a lot of my buttons:  back and  forth in history; finding stories about the past, in this case built around the object--a desk that has passed through many generations.

After I finished Krauss I was down to my Kindle. My Kindle has a LOT of books on it, more  than  I will ever read.  Mostly this is because I subscribe to a daily email from Amazon called Kindle Daily Deals, which has 5 or 6 books on sale that day for usually about $1.99.  I don't buy anything  unless it sounds like something I might actually read, but I am willing to take more chances when it's just $1.99.  I do put the books in categories--Fiction, Nonfiction, Mystery.  But as new books  arrive,  old books sink further down and I forget why I was  interested in them in the first place.  Thus I have a tendency to read from the top, which is what I did in Budapest.

I started with a novel by Igor Stryker called The Judgment  of Richard Richter.  Here is the blurb from Amazon (I've already forgotten what it was about): "In this gripping, war-torn epic novel, author Igor Stiks. . . tells the story of a celebrated writer who travels to Sarajevo to unearth devastating family secretes and the lies that have defined his life."  Well you can  see why I was drawn.  It was unmemorable, though it's kind of coming back to me a as I write this.

Deciding I needed to start down a new path, I next read Mark Mazower's What You Did Not Tell.  I was really surprised that this one came up on Kindle Daily Deal, as it is quite new and by a very distinguished historian.  In fact, I had been talking  about this very book with D. a  good friend who is an intellectual historian just a couple  of weeks before I left for Hungary.  Mazower, who is a historian of 20th century Europe, here tries to find out the history of his family, starting with his grandfather who was famously silent about himself and his past.  All  Mazower knows when he begins is that his grandfather was a member of the Bundt (a Yiddish socialist society) at the turn of the nineteenth century in Russia and Poland before he moved to London.  I am not going to summarize what he found.  All  I will say that it is amazing what a trained historian who has access to Russian archives can find  out.  No big family secrets: but a lot of detail about people Mazower never knew existed and Mazower's gift at evoking narrative desire.

Just as I was finishing What You Did Not Tell, this book popped up on Kindle Daily Deals:  Forgotten Fatherland:  The True Story of Nietzsche's Sister and Her Lost Aryan Colony by Ben Mcintire.  I am not entirely sure why I thought this was the book I really wanted to read, except that it was quirky.  The gist of it is that Mcintire learns that Nietzsche's sister, Elisabeth, and her husband founded an Aryan colony in Paraguay and decides he wants to see what is left.  The book is in three intermingled parts:  Mcintire's complicated journey into Paraguay to try to find any survivors or families of the original colony, a brief resume of Nietzsche's life and thought, and the story of Elisabeth's taking over of her brother's archives after his death and making him into a Nazi philosopher.  (For which Hitler himself paid her visits and compliments.)  It was short and well written enough to be able to say at the end, "Well I didn't know that happened."

Okay a quick glide into a Gone-Girl-wannabe on Kindle for the plane ride home and then back to real reading.  Once in Louisville, I had actual books to deal with again.  On  the top of the pile was a book my friend D.had liked and had loaned me:  Exact Thinking  in Demented Times:  The Vienna Circle and the Epic Quest for the Foundations of Science by Karl Sigmund.  This was a difficult book to read.  Not emotionally difficult or badly written difficult.  Difficult because it is about a difficult and intellectually complex subject.  It is written around the people who  formed the Vienna Circle, some of whom I had heard of, most of  whom I had not.  These people dealt with very abstract topics, particularly the relation between logic and science. The book chronicles the quest for and eventual turning away from  logical positivism.  I probably understood one tenth of it, but I was compelled to read it because Sigmund actually makes you want to know what happened next.

After that I really needed a novel.  My friend S. and  I have lunch together regularly and talk about a book we have both agreed to read.  The book that came next was The Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel by Milorad Pavic. It's a fictional collection of three dictionaries (or fragments of dictionaries) that purportedly are three accounts of an episode in which the Khazars (a real though not much known about tribe) decided whether to become Christian, Muslim, or Jewish.  Each "dictionary" is assembled by a scholar of the same religion.  It's a blend of real people  and events and something like fantasy or magical realism.  Of course, like everything, it would probably be better if you could identify the real people or events and had some sense of what was at stake, either at the time or when the novel was first written (1984 in Serbian).  Yes, it was a novel.  But alas, it pretty much lacked a narrative.

At the same time I was reading a book on my Kindle (as I always do at night after Tony goes to sleep) ,this  time The  Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl:  How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis by Arthur Allen.  Weigl was the scientist who first identified and manufactured vaccine for typhus.  The other scientist was Ludwig Fleck (who is also known as a philosopher  of science, and who was a kind of predecessor to Thomas Kuhn,)  Typhus was one of the main causes of death during World War II and was associated with Jews who (because they lived in the unsanitary conditions in which typhus flourished and thus suffered disproportionately) were seen as "carriers."  The person who could best manufacture the vaccine was Fleck, who--unfortunately for the Nazis--was Jewish.  He was too valuable to kill, so they moved his laboratory into Auschwitz.  The lab flourished and the workers were safe, but the vaccine was painstakingly slow to produce.  By various means and with the unacknowledged connivance oh his Nazi superior, Fleck was able to feed the SS fake vaccine and smuggle  the potent vaccine to people  in the camps.  This was actually quite an interesting book and definitely had some narrative drive.

Nevertheless, it was with a sense of relief that I dove into the next book on my list, Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, which is a novel  for sure.  Lots of plot(s), interesting characters, stylistically smooth.  Ah fiction!  And so I am, at least temporarily, turning away from reading adventures and back  to reading pleasures.  Novels galore!

Now a quick swerve back to Reading in Retirement.  I am much freer with what I read now than  when I worked.  Partly, of course, it's because of time.  But also I used to read novels for pleasure and research for work.  Part of research was the work I produced myself, for example rhetorical analyses of works by scientists, in my case mainly biologists who worked in some part of evolutionary theory.  So I needed to read the scientists' texts (primary research), other biological texts around the issue at hand, rhetorical theory to scaffold my analysis, etc.  I also read for teaching--again research and theory.  Sometimes I taught a literature course and  I would read novels.  But reading a novel in order to teach it is quite different from reading it for itself alone.

Having no need  to read research and theory in  my areas and having no compulsion to read it anymore, I have put that entirely aside.  But I still need not only novels (first, best love) but also other kinds of texts.  If I could stay in  Louisville for an extended period of time,  I would audit a class.  That would give my reading structure and focus.  Lacking that,  I tend to wander.  But wandering is also fun and leads to surprising discoveries.  The Bundt.  The origin of the Nile.  Bog people.  Jedwabne Poland.  These are some of the surprising byways my reading has taken me on.

This blog post has turned out to be a kind of Big Summer Book Rerport--though it's not summer, and because I am retired I can read this way any time if I want to!    



Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Home: A Narrative of Retirement Blog Post

We got home two weeks ago today.  Being at home in retirement presents very different challenges than travelling in retirement.  I will return to this statement  later in the post.

Two weeks ago we flew back from Budapest.  We were--wait for it--exhausted.  We had to get up early, make two connections (in Munich and Washington).  Everything went fine til we got to Washington and had to wait about five hours for a late connection to Louisville.  For me, flying west is always harder than flying east.  Going east, you can arrive in the afternoon, take a nap, have dinner, stay up til a reasonable  time and reset your body schedule.  Flying west, it is daytime all along and when you finally get home you crash into bed and get uup way too early.  And alongside jet lag comes the whole kit and kaboodle involved in returning home.

My retirement year is divided into three parts.  One part is travel.  Last year it was Budapest and Spain; this year Budapest and we hope the Baltic states.  Travel is exhilirating, if exhausting, and there's not much question of how  to spend your days.  You're travelling!  The second  part is the lake.  No problems there either.  The days have a rhythm:  walk with Cindy and the dogs, swim once it gets warm enough, work on my book, read, spend  time with friends, etc.  But Louisville is still a problem.  I just don't know how to shape my days here.  I do walk  and spend  time  (coffee, lunch ) with friends (but not regularly).  I do read and I WILL resume work on my book.  But my life feels kind of shapeless.  For example, here are my first two weeks in Louisville.

Susan and I went for a "looking for signs of spring" nature  walk in Bernheim Forest, a beautiful arboretum outside Louisville.  We have had a fairly cold  March, so there were precious few harbingers of spring.  Some interesting items, like a tree fungus, water drops on a spider web, and some geese.

Still it was a lot of fun to go out with Susan on a nature walk.  

Tony and  I saw two movies, neither of which we liked.   The Shape of Water.  Yes, we hated  it.  Pretentious, slow, basically boring.  (We are obviously in the minority here, as it won  the Oscar for best picture.)  Then yesterday Red Sparrow, which we  knew wouldn't be good (reviews stank) but it was filmed entirely in Budapaest, so we thought it would be fun to see the city on the screen.  Looking out for places we recognized was the best (actually only good) part of the movie.  This is how stupid.  English speaking actors spoke English with Russian accents even when  speaking with each other (presumably in Russian).  Logically, they should have spoken Russian with subtitles or spoken regular English.  It made no sense (as did the plot as well).  Also the whole movie was shot in Budapest, even the parts that were meant to be in Russia.  So if you have ever been to Budapest and visited the Museum of Fine Arts in Hero Square (a very recognizable site) you will know  this is not the theater (it's not even a theater) for the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.  Similarly, if you have ever been inside the Budapest Opera House you will know you are not in Russia.

Okay, moving along.  Other notable highlights. 

We bought a new mattress.  

We finished watching A French Village, the 7 season French TV series about a fictional village in Vichy France between 1940 and 1945 (with glimpses into the further future).  By the way, this is a great series: morally complex in so many ways and utterly compelling.  

I reconnected via email with my college roommate with whom  I had lost touch many years ago.  Writing and back and forth to her has been one of the real pleasures of returning home.  

I read the last chapter of my last graduate student's dissertation and will in May hood my last doctoral student.  This is especialy bittersweet.  

The above paragraphs offer a list of things  I am doing. (And it doesn't even  include the vast amounts of time I spend reading magazines and  watching MSNBC)  But that list doesn't really cohere into  a  story--a narrative. In truth, I  still  haven't figured out how to be retired in Louisville.  That's not to say that  I don't like living in Louisville.  I enjoy our condo, the movies, going out to eat, seeing more of Susan and other friends.  But I don't wake up each day with any real sense of what I want to get done.  Louisville is still the filler between travelling and the lake.  

The picture at the top of this post is from my window right after we got home.  The park is very bare.  But here is the picture  from oday.

The trees are starting to bud.  Spring is on its way.  We're having Passover with Doug and  Susan.   Next month Tony's sister Mags and her husband Ken are coming to Louisville.  Flowers will be blooming.  And we're only about two and a half months from leaving for Michigan!