Book Review: Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

Year of First Publication: 1967

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2011

Number of Pages: 613

Publisher: Random House

Genre: Nonfiction

Sub-Genres: Biography, history

Find it on the Book Depository. (Disclosure: I’m an affiliate.)

It appears that my interest in Russia is starting to come full-circle. First it was their literature, then their language, and now their history. Olive, one of the most enthusiastic Russophile bloggers I’ve seen yet, highly recommended the work of Robert Massie—and this book in particular—to anyone who is just beginning to study Russian history.

It turned out to be a great recommendation: despite having little prior knowledge of Russian history before the Soviet era, I didn’t find this book at all intimidating or inaccessible. Massie’s almost lyrical prose makes it an even greater pleasure to read. From the very first paragraph, his gifts as a narrator are evident:

From the Baltic city of St. Petersburg, built on a river marsh in a far northern corner of the empire, the Tsar ruled Russia. So immense were the Tsar’s dominions that, as night began to fall along their western borders, day already was breaking on their Pacific coast. Between these distant frontiers lay a continent, one sixth of the land surface of the globe. Through the depths of Russia’s winters, millions of tall pine trees stood silent under heavy snows. In the summer, clusters of white-trunked birch trees rustled their silvery leaves in the slanting rays of the afternoon sun. Rivers, wide and flat, flowed peacefully through the grassy plains of European Russia toward a limitless southern horizon. Eastward, in Siberia, even mightier rivers rolled north to the Arctic, sweeping through forests where no human had ever been, and across desolate marshes of frozen tundra.

While this is a traditional biography, narrating its subjects’ entire lives from their births to their deaths, the main focus of the story for Massie consists in three things: the love story between Nicholas and Alexandra, the tragedy of their son Alexei’s hemophilia, and the toll that the disease took not just on the family but on the entire country. On those damaged genes, Massie pins nothing less than the downfall of tsarist Russia and the rise of Lenin. If Alexei hadn’t been so sick, Alexandra would not have embraced the so-called “holy man” Rasputin and would not have given him so much power in the government. Without Rasputin’s influence, Massie goes on, Nicholas and Alexandra would not have made so many of the decisions that ultimately led to even Nicholas’s closest friends and advisers begging him to abdicate.

Am I convinced that Alexei’s disease was the beginning of the end for a family seemingly marked for tragedy? Yes. Am I convinced that the Romanovs would not have fallen without Rasputin’s being there? Not really. As this book plainly shows, Nicholas was, in many other respects, a very good man—he just wasn’t a good leader. Thoroughly schooled in the ways of autocratic imperialism by his father before him, he preoccupied himself with a number of ill-advised overseas conflicts, meanwhile the Russian people were starving and his nation’s industry was struggling. When his people demanded the civil rights afforded to the citizens of most Western nations, he responded alternately with force and with half-hearted concessions which only served to inflame both sides. All this to say that Nicholas II’s Russia had plenty of problems and was already teetering close to the edge of revolution before Rasputin got there. Nevertheless, Massie is right to conclude that Rasputin’s interference in the government—particularly during the critical years of World War I, when the people already doubted the allegiances of their German-born queen—was the last straw.

Elsewhere in the book, I wonder if Massie wasn’t a little overeager to protect his subjects from criticism, particularly when it comes to issues involving the Jews. He makes no mention, for instance, of the fact that anti-Jewish persecution greatly increased during Nicholas’s reign, or that, although he did relax some of the restrictions put on Jews by previous tsars, he also added a few of his own. It is unfortunate that Nicholas, noted by his contemporaries for his kindness and generosity, should succumb to the prejudices of his day on this particular point, but it is a fact, one that Massie seems to overlook.

The Romanov family in 1913. From left to right, Olga, Maria, Nicholas, Alexandra, Anastasia, Alexei, and Tatiana.

In spite of those shortcomings, Nicholas and Alexandra is still a captivating book. Whatever their failings as leaders might have been, Nicholas and Alexandra were both fascinating people, and in some ways, even admirable people. Alexandra especially awed me with her strength and dignity. As Massie describes so poignantly, the struggle to cope with Alexei’s hemophilia nearly broke her, but even when she was at her lowest, she never gave way to despair. When she herself became plagued by poor health and exhaustion, she still found ways to help others and to make herself useful to them. During World War I, for example, she, along with her two oldest daughters Olga and Tatiana, trained as nurses with the Red Cross. There was the Empress of the All the Russias, changing bandages, administering medicine to delirious soldiers, and disposing of amputated limbs. Even at the very end, when she and her family had been under arrest for over a year and it was becoming obvious that they would not in fact be brought to England as promised, she was the one comforting her friends, assuring them that God was watching over them.

And her strength of character could be matched by her husband as well. My favorite story about him is probably the one where, after spending six months as a prisoner in his own home, he invited his and his family’s guards to share Easter dinner with them: he thought that, on Easter of all days, he should embrace his fellow Christians, whoever they happened to be. Stories like this convince me that, despite his failures and prejudices as a leader, he was still at heart a very good sort of man.

Really, though, that’s what makes the book worth reading in the first place: the complexity of these individuals, as well as of the times they lived through. The whole massive drama that they took part in. This was only my first taste of Russian royal history, but I will certainly be back for more.


Bookish Links — February 2018

Image by Chris Lawton


As you may have noticed, I haven’t been updating as frequently. To free up time for other projects, I’ve decided to switch to a biweekly schedule instead of my old weekly one.

See you in March!

Poems for Valentine’s Day

Image by Gaetano Cessati.

It’s become a yearly tradition now for me to post a list of favorite love poems around Valentine’s Day. Lucky for me that Valentine’s Day should fall on a Wednesday this year! Regardless of how you feel about the holiday in general, I hope that you won’t mind looking over some rather incredible poems on the subject of love.

1: “The Greatest Love” by Anna Swir, translated by Czesław Miłosz and Leonard Nathan

In my humble opinion, Anna Swir never got her due. Among her contemporaries in post-World War II Poland, her work was often regarded as distasteful for the frank way in which it deals with sexuality and the female body. These days, she tends to get overshadowed by her more famous countrymen, poets like Miłosz, Herbert, and Szymborska. Here’s hoping that one of these days, she is finally brought out of the shadows.

Like a lot of Swir’s poetry, this poem is very short, and like Swir’s other poems, its brevity is its strength. She understands that some experiences are too powerful and too far beyond human comprehension to do them justice in words and for this reason, she effaces herself as much as possible and tries to let the experience speak through her instead of her speaking for it.

2: “I Loved You Before I Was Born” by Li-Young Lee

Where Swir writes about a love that endures through long periods of time, Lee has in mind instead a love that transcends time—or at least seems to. The speaker readily admits that what he says “makes no sense, I know,” but that doesn’t keep him from feeling as though his love has always existed and will always exist into eternity.

3: “Love” by Ivan Lalic, translated by Francis R. Jones

As in Lee’s poem, the love in this poem is a thing unto itself, a force that is, in a sense, independent of the two people. Unlike in Lee’s poem, however, this speaker knows full well that his love will die with him or with his lover, and it’s that impending disaster—the catastrophe that will end their way of life—that gives the poem a sort of bitter-sweetness: they know it has to end, but the thought of it ending makes it all the more precious.

4: “Six Years Later” by Joseph Brodsky, translated by Richard Wilbur

For me, this poem pairs well with “Love.” To the couples in both poems, their love is all-encompassing and completely changes the way they live their lives. But where Lalic’s poem has a more ethereal feel to it, Brodsky’s brings the focus closer to the here and now, though the poem is no less beautiful for that. While it can seem a bit abstract a times, concrete details like snow, eyelashes, lips, even crumbling wallpaper help the reader to place this couple in time and space. It’s that middle ground that Brodsky finds between the abstract and the concrete that makes this poem work for me, a kind of compromise that all good poems strike. (I might also add that, although most foreign language poems can’t help but become free verse when they enter English, Wilbur has taken great care to translate this one into a regular meter and to preserve the rhyme scheme of the original poem. So, that’s good.)

5: “Your Telephone Call” by Adam Zagajewski, translated by Renata Gorczynski

Here’s another short and sweet one, also by a Polish author. I’ve written about Zagajewski before and the great subtlety of his work—like Swir before him, he knows how to do more with less.

6: “C Major” by Tomas Tranströmer, translated by Robin Fulton

In addition to his career as a poet, Tranströmer also had a great passion for music, which can be plainly seen in much of his poetry. Here, the very air seems to play music around the lover in this poem, and the whole world is transfigured by his love.

7: “Motive” by Don Paterson

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Don Paterson is one of the greatest living poets in the world. And while his 2009 collection Rain overall left me feeling cold, there are more than a few gems in it, this being one.

Unlike the other poems on this list so far, this one isn’t so much about love itself as it is about a particular lover: her unknowability and unpredictability. It explores the reality that, no matter how close you are to a person, you never completely understand them. I suppose, in a way, you could say that this poem is about any meaningful relationship.

That’s all for now, but do let me know in the comments what some of your favorite love poems are and what you think of these!

Bookish Links — January 2018

Dostoevsky’s notes from The Brothers Karamazov. Source
  • “His willingness to expose his own process of self-discovery in words and phrases was magical to me—and still is. As an artist, he was the most uncompromising individual I ever met in my life”: the great Mikhail Baryshnikov is currently starring in a one-man show inspired by the poetry of his friend Joseph Brodsky, and the Poetry Foundation interviewed him about it.

The Poets List

I’m always surprised at the ease with which some book bloggers can choose favorites. I find it very difficult to choose just one favorite book, or even one favorite prose writer among the dozens that I read often. Favorite poets, though, is another kettle of fish. After hearing one BookTuber talk about her favorite novel, I realized that, while my list of favorite books or authors is and will probably always be a little hazy, my list of favorite poets is surprisingly clear-cut. I can even rank them, though just a hair’s breadth separates them.

I could spend (and have spent) hours writing about any one of these people, but I’ll try to, as concisely as I can, explain why these three are my favorite poets.

1: Seamus Heaney

Reading Seamus Heaney for the first time marked a sea change for me. Previously, I had—with the exception of W. H. Auden—only read poems 100 years old or older, firmly convinced that all “modern” poetry was post-structuralist crap that was more trouble than it was worth to try to understand. I looked up Heaney after a friend recommended his translation of Beowulf to me. I had never heard of Heaney at this point, and when I read in his translator bio that he had published several collections of poetry, I remember rolling my eyes a little. Oh, another one of those modern poets, I thought. Even so, morbid curiosity led me to look up some of his poems on the Poetry Foundation anyway.

Four years and twelve books later, I have to say that my relationship to poetry is very different, and not just because I’m not engaging in that type of “chronological snobbery” any more. Among other things, reading Heaney changed my ideas about language itself. I was used to talking about the use of “language” in literature and pointing to a specific tone or certain connotations or denotations exploited by the author, but I never really gave much thought to the particular language (perhaps I should say tongue instead) that the poet wrote in: the regional, historical, and social factors that gave rise to his speech. It occurred to me after reading Heaney that, just like the particular words and images themselves, a whole language could be charged with meaning and provide yet another facet with which to reflect the poem’s inner truth.

That then allowed me to better appreciate other poets for whom their mother tongue was an integral part of their identity as poets, particularly Czesław Miłosz.

2: John Donne

I started reading Donne when I was seventeen (an aside for English teachers: if you want teenagers to care about poetry, John Donne is your man). I happened upon this video from a Poetry Out Loud competition of a contestant reciting his “The Canonization.” It was unlike any other poem I had ever read. The rapid-fire show of images and allusions felt like sensory overload, and yet, I loved it. So, I started seeking out other Donne poems. Not only did his strange comparisons and his fast-moving trains of thought continue to delight, but I also found a kindred spirit in his religious poetry. Some Donne fans, I know, tend to think the religious poems are too dark or dour. For me though, at the time, I resonated deeply with Donne’s regret and anxiety in the face of his own sin.

Really, Donne changed my ideas about nearly everything: God, poetry, the body, all of it. The fact that he was willing to embrace subject matter that had previously been deemed “unfit” for poetry showed me how art could encompass all of life and breathe new life into it. His bold declarations of doubt and anxiety regarding his faith, and then his fervent avowal of God’s ultimate power, were a boon to me at a time when I was very doubtful and anxious myself. And his frankness regarding the body in his poetry, and his eagerness to mix the spiritual with the earthly, changed some of the ideas I had previously regarding the place of the physical world in the life of the spirit. In every way, he’s an essential author for me.

3: Czesław Miłosz

Miłosz is the kind of writer I wish I could be, although I know I never will. He has such incredible range in his poetry, taking in the “big picture”—the universal truths underlying the universe and the whole sweeping arc of history—as well as tiny, tactile details of appearance, color, sound, texture. Jane Hirshfield credits him with helping to introduce intellect into modern American poetry—helping make it acceptable for a poet to think out loud in his poems—and I appreciate that aspect of his work too. Like Donne’s metaphysical poems, his embrace of intellect and philosophical themes broadens the horizons of poetry even further.

And then there’s another aspect of his work that I barely even know how to describe: a feeling that I get not just about it, but about everything else after I’ve read it. Adam Zagajewski came close to describing this feeling in a poem titled, aptly enough, “Reading Miłosz”:

Sometimes your tone
transforms us for a moment,
we believe—truly—
that every day is sacred

that poetry—how to put it? —
makes life rounder,
fuller, prouder, unashamed
of perfect formulation.

When I read Miłosz, I get the idea that there’s a whole other dimension to human life—to the life of the mind, the spirit, even of the body—that I didn’t know about before. That sounds very strange, I’m sure, but that’s as well as I can express it.

And there you have it: my three favorite poets of all time. Who are yours? What do think of these three? Let me know in the comments.

Christmas Books

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

It occurred to me recently that, despite getting a ton of books for Christmas, I have yet to mention any of them here. And since it’s likely that some or all of them will show up in future blog posts, here’s an idea of what to expect:

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson Philosophical differences aside, I’m willing to admit that Paterson is one of the best living poets in the world. It was a poem from 40 Sonnets that introduced me to him to begin with, so I’ll be reading these soon.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby – A veteran screenwriter’s step-by-step guide to becoming a brilliant storyteller. I myself don’t go in much for fiction writing, but I do love literary analysis, and I think Truby’s book will be helpful for learning how to better critique the stories I read.

Breathturn into Timestead: The Collected Later Poetry of Paul Celan edited and translated by Pierre Joris – A massive anthology that collects all of the poems from Celan’s last six books and prints them both in the original German and in Joris’s English translations. That’s on top of 200+ pages of commentary by Joris. Although it’s some of Celan’s densest and strangest poetry, I’ve always preferred the late poems to his older work. This has been on my wishlist for a long time. (Also, I just recently found out that it’s out of print now and the cheapest one can buy it for on Amazon is $78. So, I’m really glad I have a copy now.)

The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell – Another book that I think will be useful for upping my criticism game. First published in 1947, Hero is a landmark work in mythology studies, describing the trope of the “Hero’s Journey” and how it manifests itself in cultures all over the world.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell – Rilke’s famed correspondence with Franz Kappus, a young Austrian student who wrote to Rilke asking for advice as he embarked on a literary career. I’ve read three of the ten letters and hope to write on it soon. Meanwhile, these letters are making me love Rilke’s poetry even more than before.

Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie – This is a joint biography of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and his wife Empress Alexandra. Despite knowing very little about Russian history prior, I got caught up in this book immediately and am now about halfway through. I will definitely review this one later.

Has anyone read any of these? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

“Epistle” by Li-Young Lee

Of wisdom, splendid columns of light
waking sweet foreheads,
I know nothing

but what I’ve glimpsed in my most hopeful daydreams.
Of a world without end,

I know nothing,
but what I sang of once with others,
all of us standing in the vaulted room.

But there is wisdom
in the hour in which a boy
sits in his room listening

to the sound of weeping
coming from some other room
of his father’s house,

and that boy was me, and he
listened without understanding, and was soon frightened
by how the monotonous sobs resembled laughter.

All of this while noon became vast day,
while sunlight and the clock
gave birth to melancholy,

before the days grew vacant,
the sun grew terrible, the clock stopped,
and melancholy gave up to grief.

All of this
in a dead hour of a dead day,
among doors closed for nap or prayer.

Who was weeping? Why?
Did the boy fall asleep?
Did he flee that house? Is he there now?

Before it all gets wiped away, let me say,
there is wisdom in the slender hour
which arrives between two shadows.

It is not heavenly and it is not sweet.
It is accompanied by steady human weeping,
and twin furrows between brows,

but it is what I know,
and so am able to tell.

As I wait impatiently for Li-Young Lee’s latest poetry collection The Undressing to come out in February, I’ve been revisiting some of his older work. Rose, published in 1986, was his first book and contains some of my favorites of his poems, among them “From Blossoms” and “Irises.” I didn’t give much thought to “Epistle,” the collection’s opening poem, the first time I read it, but this time, I found it much more compelling. Even the title alone is evocative: the word “epistle” is so seldom used these days outside of a religious context (the Epistles of St. Paul, and so forth) that it’s hard to divorce it from the idea of something timeless. At the same time, “epistle” is just another word for a letter, the intimate correspondence of the writer to his reader. By calling this poem an “epistle,” Lee identifies it both as an address to all people, meant to convey truth, and as a more intimate experience, that of the writer sharing his own unique vision with his readers on a one-to-one basis. If a poem is good, it should be for all times and all people, but also for the individual.

This ties into the main theme of the poem, namely the growth of a young person as he tries to learn about the world. In the opening stanzas, the speaker is thinking of a church, where he used to pray (“… a world without end, / amen”) and sing hymns, with “all of us standing in the vaulted room.” The later stanzas, however, find him in his father’s house, listening to someone weeping in another room. One experience is public, shared with others and performed similarly by countless millions all over the world. The other is unique and private: he might have been the only one in the house that day, and the only one who could hear that weeping. And yet in both experiences, there is wisdom. These two forces—religion and his family’s grief—are the two wellsprings from which his wisdom comes, and therefore, the source of the wisdom that is to be found in his poems. Something specific and private, without the validation of any outside authority,  becomes the means of granting him some truth.

I think that’s what poetry—and literature more broadly—tends to do: bring the personal and temporal in contact with the universal and the eternal. The father’s rising early to light the fireplace and polish the shoes is a first lesson in what it means to truly love a person. A bird flying becomes a sort of messenger from God. And in countless love poems, the beloved or the love itself becomes a way of understanding and internalizing truth.

So what was the truth that the speaker gleaned from his experience of another person’s grief? He doesn’t say in so many words. Only that “It is not heavenly and it is not sweet. / It is accompanied by steady human weeping, / and twin furrows between brows”. I like that he leaves that hole in his story, so that the reader, if so inclined, can fill it in with his own ideas or his own experiences. It becomes yet another way of deepening the intimacy between writer and reader. Now, the reader is not only a passive observer in this situation, but an active participant as well. That’s one of the things I love about Lee, the regard he has for his readers. He understands that they, like him, are seeking wisdom and he encourages them to take part in his journey toward it.

Literary Rediscoveries of 2017

Note: this post contains affiliate links.

These lists just keep getting longer! Per usual for this time of year, here’s a list of classic literary paraphernalia that was released or rediscovered for the first time in 2017. I’ve tried to make this list as complete as possible, but if you know of any other previously “lost” works that were found or published last year, let me know in the comments.


1: The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle: An Autobiography by Walt Whitman

Coming on the heels of his 2015 discovery of a collection of Whitman’s newspaper articles on “Manly Health and Training,” Texas PhD student Zachary Turpin announced this past February that he recently found a lost novel by the great poet. The Life and Adventures of Jack Engle tells the story of a young orphan who grows up to be a vagabond and a sailor. It was published in early 2017 by University of Iowa Press, but it’s available to read online too.

2: I’d Die for You and Other Lost Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald

This collection of eighteen short stories was compiled by the Fitzgerald estate and published last April by Simon and Schuster. Gathered from the Fitzgerald archives at Princeton University and from papers belonging to the Fitzgerald family, none of these stories have been published previously, according to the book’s editor, Anne Margaret Daniel.


3: The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine  by Mark Twain

When his daughters were young, Twain, like any good novelist daddy, used to make up fairy tales to tell them at bedtime. Today, The Purloining of Prince Oleomargarine is the only one of them that survives in written form. Twain himself never wrote the fairy tale’s ending, so when Doubleday acquired the story early last year, they enlisted the husband-and-wife team of Philip and Erin Stead to finish and illustrate the tale, about a poor boy who goes on an adventure to save a kidnapped prince.

4: The only known video footage of Marcel Proust

This past February, in an edition of the academic journal Revue d’Études Proustiennes, Canadian professor Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan announced that he had recovered the only surviving video footage of the famous French author from the archives at Canada’s National Cinema Center. The film was captured at the 1904 wedding of Élaine Greffulhe, the daughter of Proust’s close friend (and the inspiration behind one of his characters) the Countess Greffulhe. In the film, we see guests descending the steps of the cathedral where the wedding took place. Proust is believed to be the young man walking by himself in a gray suit and a black bowler, or as this French article calls it, a melon hat.

5: Letters and drawings by J. R. R. Tolkien

While these letters and drawings, all of which are housed in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library, were not “lost” to scholars, they have never been published before. They will appear this summer in a book titled Tolkien: The Maker of Middle Earth and will include Tolkien’s correspondence with some of his more famous admirers, among them W. H. Auden, Iris Murdoch, and Joni Mitchell.

6: A letter from W. B. Yeats

The famous photo in question. Source.

In 1904, the American photographer Alvin Coburn visited London, where he met Yeats at a dinner party. Enraptured by the impromptu poetry recital that Yeats gave at the party, Coburn asked Yeats if he could recite again while Coburn photographed him. The result was the photo on the right, which Yeats liked so much he used it as his author photo in his next collection of poems. In March of last year, the letter Yeats wrote to Coburn thanking him for the photo was discovered by PhD student Jack Quin in the library of the George Eastman Museum in New York.

7: Notes from “Shakespeare’s first critic”

I’ve always said that the British version of Antiques Roadshow is better, and this just proves it for me: a man from Berkshire, England appeared at the Roadshow with a small notebook that he said had been in his family for several generations. The experts on the show were able to date the book to the early 1600s and found that it contained the author’s notes on and reactions to some of William Shakespeare’s plays. No word yet on what exactly this 17th century critic wrote about the Bard, but, since little or no contemporary criticism of Shakespeare was thought to exist previously, the book is promised to be invaluable in the realm of Shakespeare studies.

8: Unpublished letters from Sylvia Plath


In March 2017, an antiquarian bookseller named Ken Lopez made waves in the literary world when he put a huge cache of materials belonging or relating to Sylvia Plath up for sale. Lopez had acquired these materials from Harriet Rosenstein, a literary scholar who, at one time, had been writing a biography of Plath. In addition to the taped interviews and interview notes that Rosenstein had accumulated, there were dozens of letters from Plath to her friends, including several letters to her former psychiatrist, Dr. Ruth Barnhouse. These letters set the literary internet on fire for a few weeks in April, as Plath claims in them that her husband Ted Hughes beat her, causing her to miscarry their second child. A few of these letters appear in Letters of Sylvia Plath, the first volume of which was published last October, while others were completely new finds for researchers and scholars.

9 & 10: “To a Refractory Santa Claus” and “Megrims” by Sylvia Plath

While working on These Ghostly Archives, a book about Plath’s unpublished work, Plath scholars Gail Crowther and Peter K. Steinberg discovered two previously-unknown poems by Plath on a sheet of carbon paper in the archives at Indiana University. These are two early works, written in November of 1956, five months after Plath married Ted Hughes. “To a Refractory Santa Claus” recounts the beautiful Spanish landscapes where she and Hughes spent their honeymoon, while “Megrims” deals explicitly with the experience of illness, both physical and mental.

11: A draft of a Ted Hughes poem, deleted from Birthday Letters

As the Guardian article linked above notes, at the same time Crowther and Steinberg were trying to extract those two Sylvia Plath poems from a mess of typescript, they also found a third poem written by Ted Hughes. This untitled piece was originally intended for his book Birthday Letters, his last full-length collection and the first to openly address his relationship with Plath. Like many of the poems that finally did make it into Birthday Letters, this piece deals with the grief and remorse that Hughes experienced following his wife’s suicide.

12: “Thoughts on Poverty, Misery, and the Great Revolutions of History” by Hannah Arendt

It seems little is known about this essay, originally titled “A Lecture” and found among some papers belonging to Arendt. If it was a lecture that she actually gave somewhere, no one knows where or when. All I’ve been able to find out is that it was written between 1966 and 1967 and was printed for the first time this year at The New England Review and Literary Hub, where you can read it now. This essay will also appear this month in a book titled Thinking without a Bannister: Essays in Understanding.


13: “The Christian in the Modern World” by T. S. Eliot

This one was hard to research too, since The Times Literary Supplement seemed to be the only publication talking about it and I don’t have a subscription to them. If you have one, you can read the lecture here.

14: Presto and Zesto in Limboland by Maurice Sendak and Arthur Yorinks (with illustrations)

Last summer, the Maurice Sendak Foundation announced that a complete picture book by Sendak and his frequent collaborator Arthur Yorinks had been found among Sendak’s papers. According to Lynn Caponera, the president of the Foundation, the illustrations had originally been comissioned in 1990 by the London Symphony Orchestra for a performance of Rikadla, a piece based on a series of Czech children’s poems. About ten years later, after another composer asked to use the illustrations in her show, Sendak revisited the pictures and decided to put them into a book, which he co-wrote with Yorinks. Though a complete draft was written, the authors’ involvement with other projects prevented them from getting it to print. The book is set for release through HarperCollins this September.

Dylan and Ginsburg in 1975. Source.

15: Bob Dylan concert videos recorded by Allen Ginsberg

During his famous 1965 tour, Bob Dylan was accompanied at least at a few stops by Mr. Ginsberg and his new video camera. The films that Ginsberg shot, which include parts of Dylan’s concerts and some of their backstage chit-chat before and after the shows, were acquired by Standford University in 2015, but until last year, few knew of their existence. They finally got some attention last summer, when an anonymous Youtuber posted the recordings to his channel, only to take them down again a few weeks later. The music magazine Spin noted a few of the high points of those conversations between Ginsberg and Dylan if you care to take a look.

16: 21 Poems by George Oppen

At one time, George Oppen was thought to be a rising star in American poetry. Having received enthusiastic praise from such poets as Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams, his first book, Discrete Series, seemed like the start of a brilliant career. But with the coming of World War II, Oppen began to devote more of his life to political activism and did not write any more poetry until the 1960s.

Or did he? Researcher David Hobbs went to the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University hoping to find letters that would give him some insight into the writing process behind Discrete Series. Instead, he found a whole manuscript that Oppen had sent to Pound, who then shared it with the poet Louis Zukofsky. The manuscript was published last August. You can read a few of its poems here.


17: An entry from the diary Flannery O’Connor kept in college

Last November, the arts journal Image ran a special issue containing previously-unpublished entries from Flannery O’Connor’s journals. The entries were written in about 1944, before O’Connor became a recognized author, so they reflect her hopes for and fears about her future career. You have to buy the issue to read all of the entries, but a portion of one was republished by Cynthia Haven on her blog The Book Haven.

18: Five short stories by Kurt Vonnegut

In its October 2017 issue, The Atlantic ran “The Drone King,” a previously-unpublished Kurt Vonnegut story. This and four other unseen stories were recovered from the archives at Indiana University by Dan Wakefield, a friend of Vonnegut’s, and Justin Klinkowitz, a literary scholar studying Vonnegut’s work. All five of these stories were published last November in the new Complete Stories of Kurt Vonnegut.


19: John Donne’s secret satirical paper

Late in 2016, Matthew Payne, the Keeper of Muniments at Westminster Abbey, was going through a large box containing unsorted Latin manuscripts from the abbey’s library. He recognized one paper as a spoof of a library’s catalog, but couldn’t identify its author. A few minutes searching Google (seriously) told him that this was the “Catalogus Librorum Satiricus” (in English, “The Courtier’s Library”), written by John Donne. The document consists of a list of fictional book titles and their synopses, all of which are either crude jokes or wisecracks directed at powerful officials in the church or government. The document is believed to date back to 1603 or ’04. At that time, Donne was working as a lawyer, having lost his previous post with the government after he married his boss’s niece Anne Moore without her family’s permission. A paper like this, which Donne circulated secretly to a small cabal of fans and patrons, probably would have landed Donne in jail, if not on the gallows. The document was publicly displayed at Westminster Abbey in November of 2017, which is why the press didn’t report it until last year.

20: “It’s All Right—He Only Died” by Raymond Chandler

And lastly, magazine editor Andrew Gulli takes what’s now his usual spot on this list, having discovered in 2017 a lost short story by Raymond Chandler. “It’s All Right—He Only Died” was found in Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and published last October in Gulli’s magazine The Strand. Written late in Chandler’s career, the story takes a slightly different tack from most of Chandler’s other work: instead of a detective story, “He Only Died” is a social realism piece about the challenges that the poor face in getting healthcare.

Bookish Links — December 2017

Image by Aaron Burden.
  • “We believed that poetry, the opposite of propaganda, should encourage people to think and feel for themselves: it should appeal to their ‘generous instinct,’ as MacNeice said in the violent 1930s”: the New Statesman recently published this lecture by Northern Irish poet Michael Longley on the Troubles and the poetry that came out of it.


Happy New Year!

The 12 Days of Litmas (All in One Day)

Image by Ben White.

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

If you’ve been on BookTube recently, you probably heard about the “12 Days of Litmas,” created by Adrian at Stripped Cover Lit. Unfortunately, I didn’t find out about it until it was already underway, at which point I thought it would be awkward to join in when I would be two days behind everyone else. So instead, we close out the year at Book Geeks Anonymous by answering each of Adrian’s 12 prompts today.

Day 1: Your favorite poem

“As kingfishers catch fire” by Gerard Manley Hopkins. I could have answered this prompt in a number of ways because I have several favorite poems, but few of them are as aurally beautiful, as spiritually profound, and as fun to recite aloud as this one is.

Day 2: Your favorite flash fiction story

Like a lot of the people who participated in the 12 Days of Litmas, I had to look up a piece of flash fiction specifically for this challenge. It turns out that this past summer, The New Yorker ran a whole series on flash fiction, which is where I found “I Don’t Need Anything from Here” by László Krasznahorkai. It reads a little more like a prose poem than a short story, but it’s beautiful, and filled to the brim with that sense of sehnsucht that I love.

Day 3: Your favorite short story

“White Nights” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. At just over 20,000 words, it’s probably too long to be considered a “short story,” but it is one of my favorite pieces of short fiction. I love it because it’s about introversion and daydreaming and the difficulties that arise in trying to form meaningful connections with our fellow humans, all topics that interest me very much. I also love the main character for his selflessness, in that he was willing to lose the woman he loved because he knew she would be happier with someone else. Those sorts of love stories aren’t very common, but they’re some of my favorites.

Day 4: Your favorite novel

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, because it (along with some other works) is one of the books that helped me fall in love with literature in the first place. But that’s getting into the Day 6 challenge.

Day 5: Your favorite haiku

From Kobayashi Issa, in the translation by Robert Hass:

All the time I pray to Buddha
I keep on
killing mosquitoes.

I notice a theme between a lot of my favorite poems: they are often about the tension between the spiritual and the temporal. When I first read this poem, I saw it as a lament on the world’s hostility to anything higher than itself, and it may very well be that too. On rereading it, though, I wondered if maybe the obstacle the speaker faces in his spiritual life is not the world but himself. “I keep on / killing mosquitoes,” not “mosquitoes keep on biting me.” He is the one interrupting his prayers, not the mosquitoes. He lets something small keep him from something infinitely more important. So maybe there’s a duality there: the world and everything that goes with it can be obstacles to spiritual change, but they can also become excuses for our own weakness. Anyway, those are things I like to think about, so I like reading about them in this haiku too.

Day 6: Your story with literature
This sounds cliché, but it’s true: I’ve been reading for as long as I can remember. When I was little, I used to read everything I could find: board books, flyers in the mail, my mom’s baby name book, everything. In grade school, I was fascinated both with American history and the ancient world, so most of my reading as a child was nonfiction on one of those two topics. I read fiction too, because it was fun, but I didn’t really start thinking about it as “literature” until my junior year of high school. We were studying poetry, but, since I had such a small repertoire of poetry behind me, all this talk of meter and assonance and producing certain “feelings” in the reader didn’t really make sense to me. Finally, I was assigned one poem that stood out: “Methought I saw my late espoused saint” by John Milton. I didn’t understand everything in it, but my heart was touched by the pathos of it, while my brain was intrigued by that paradoxical final line. To me, it was a completely new way of writing. I then started reading other poetry from around the same period: Jonson, Shakespeare, and of course, my now-beloved John Donne. From there, I just became more and more curious and started sampling poets from all over the world and from all time periods.

Falling in love with poetry, I think, set me up to fall in love with literature more broadly. The next year in school I was assigned Hamlet. This was the first truly great work of fiction I had ever read (after trying and failing to read Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen as a young girl) and finally, I realized that there was something bigger going on in literature than just entertainment or “self-expression.”

Day 7: Your own writing

You’ve already read it! I’ve tried to write in other forms (poetry, short stories. One time, I thought I might be able to write a novel.), but I always come back to essays. As I mentioned in the Day 6 challenge, nonfiction was my first love and it’s the type of writing I most like to do.

Day 8: Your favorite quote on writing

From Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis:

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original. Whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how many times it’s been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

I find my worst writing happens when I’m trying to give it “flair” or make it stand out. If I just write down exactly what I mean to say, it always comes out better. This writerly advice of Lewis’s has saved me from more than a few bad essays.

Day 9: Your favorite quote on literature

From a letter by Franz Kafka to his friend Oskar Pollak:

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.

I fully believe that there’s no point in reading unless it makes you somehow better than you were before: more knowledgeable, more empathetic, or wiser. I think a book that doesn’t leave you changed, at least in some small way, wasn’t really worth reading in the first place. As a result, I’ve grown quite fond of this quote from Kafka and its imagery, which to me, evokes a struggle against complacency.

Day 10: Your favorite nonfiction writer

C. S. Lewis. Not only is he my most-owned author, he’s also my favorite Christian apologist. Even when handling complex philosophical or theological issues, he’s able to write accessibly without ever giving the impression of talking down to his readers. He anticipates and answers criticism and questions and takes care to make his meaning as clear as possible.

Day 11: Your go-to books when you’re “not feeling it”

Adrian purposely left this prompt wide open so that everyone could come up with their own definition of “not feeling it.” For my part, I want to talk about the two authors I read when I’m just generally out of it, either bored, or depressed, or worried that I’ve run out of things to say: Seamus Heaney and John Donne. They are my favorite and second-favorite poets respectively and I never come away from their poems without feeling like my love of poetry and language has been in someway rekindled. If I had to choose specific books as favorites, I love Heaney’s Selected Poems: 1966-1987 and the Penguin Classics edition of Donne’s Complete English Poems.

Day 12: 5 reading goals, 5 writing goals, and 5 blog goals

How about three for each?

Reading goals:

1: Finish at least two Dostoevsky novels in the next year, probably Crime and Punishment and The Idiot. (I spent 2017 dithering away in the short stories. No more!)

2: Don’t buy so many new books. At least, not until I’ve read more of the books I have already.

3: Read books in French. My vocabulary and reading comprehension are not yet up to speed, but they hopefully will be soon.

Writing goals:

1: Try to broaden the number of topics on which I can write extensively and confidently. Right now, it’s just literary criticism and personal essays involving literature. I want to try writing about other media and current events too.

2: I want to get published somewhere. It doesn’t have to be a big site or magazine: I just want people who don’t know me to read something I wrote and be enthusiastic about it.

3: I want to try to write a play. Granted, I have no one who wants to produce or act in a play, but the writing could be fun.

Blog goals:

1: More long-form pieces. (You’re welcome/I’m sorry.)

2: I want to post book reviews more often. Maybe two per month every month as the minimum.

3: I’m thinking about branching out more into the blogging world. I intend to keep this blog updated into the foreseeable future, but I’ve also thought about starting other blogs, maybe one about films and/or one about the music I listen to.

And with that, we complete the 12 Days of Litmas. I’m glad Adrian put this together, because it was so much fun seeing his and everyone else’s responses.

“Christmas Eve” by Christina Rossetti

Image by Aaron Burden.

Hello, all. I’m sure you’re super busy this week. I am too. That’s why I’m just dropping in to say Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and please read this poem. Christina Rossetti is always great, of course, but I’ve especially been enjoying her Advent poems lately.

“Christmas Eve”
by Christina Rossetti

Christmas hath a darkness
    Brighter than the blazing noon,
Christmas hath a chillness
    Warmer than the heat of June,
Christmas hath a beauty
    Lovelier than the world can show:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
   Brought for us so low.

Earth, strike up your music,
   Birds that sing and bells that ring;
Heaven hath answering music
    For all Angels soon to sing:
Earth, put on your whitest
    Bridal robe of spotless snow:
For Christmas bringeth Jesus,
    Brought for us so low.

First Impressions: Madame Bovary

At night, when the carriers passed under her windows in their carts singing the “Marjolaine,” she awoke, and listened to the noise of the iron-bound wheels, which, as they gained the country road, was soon deadened by the soil. “They will be here tomorrow!” she said to herself.

And she followed them in thought up and down the hills, traversing villages, gliding along the highroads by the light of the stars. At the end of some indefinite distance there was always a confused spot, into which her dream died.

Madame Bovary, Part I, Chapter 9

I follow a lot of literature-related blogs and accounts on social media, and one of my favorites is Karen Swallow Prior’s Twitter account. In case you don’t know of her, she’s a professor of English at Liberty University, as well as an author, having written two books and several essays for publications like Christianity Today and The Atlantic. The first of those two books, Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me, is a sort of literary memoir, a love letter to the books and authors that made her who she is. Madame Bovary is featured prominently in that book, and is often mentioned in some of Dr. Prior’s other essays as well. Eventually, my curiosity got to the point where I had to read it. Currently, I’m at Chapter 8 of Part II. Here are just a few preliminary thoughts I wanted to write down:

Because Dr. Prior’s writing tended to focus most on the moral arguments in this book, I half-expected it to take a very straightforward, even bordering on didactic, tone. So I was a little surprised by the dreamy, Romantic sound of some of the narration. Take for example this passage, describing Emma Bovary’s depression when a man she had fallen in love with moves to another city:

Everything seemed to her enveloped in a black atmosphere floating confusedly over the exterior of things, and sorrow was engulfed within her soul with soft shrieks such as the winter wind makes in ruined castles. It was that reverie which we give to things that will not return, the lassitude that seizes you after everything is done; that pain, in fine, that the interruption of every wonted movement, the sudden cessation of any prolonged vibration, brings on. [Part I, Chapter 8]

This choice of language, and the tone of the story overall so far, give me the impression that, though the writer knows full well that Emma is wrong, he can still, in a way, understand her longings. He’s not indulgent, but he’s not completely cold either. This makes the story better, I think, because it helps to humanize Emma. Going in, I was afraid the main character would make this book unbearable with her unremitting selfishness. The selfishness comes through loud and clear, but at the same time, so does the hope for an extraordinary life (not a bad desire in itself necessarily) and her love of beautiful things (also not bad if taken the right way). She has the same basic desires as everyone, although she goes about fulfilling them in the wrong way, ultimately leading her to lose everything. Flaubert, of course, is not defending his heroine—rather, he treats her as a real, complicated human being instead of just a component to a moral argument. I like authors like that, in whose books their respect and compassion for their own characters is plain to see.