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reading a book

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By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

Since the news lately has been so grim, I want us to share something of a lighter tone. Have you ever thought about your earliest memories? How far back can you go? Do you remember what your parents looked like when they were younger? Do you recall outings they took you on and how that worked out? What spotlight can you shine back on the farthest points in your life?

The first that comes to my mind is the fun I had sledding in Central Park one day with my dad. The hill at 84th Street and Fifth Avenue looks pretty modest to me now, but then I thought it was alpine. The weather must have been very cold because my dad, who was almost never cold, was wearing his rough woolen grey overcoat. We had a Frequent Flyer long red sled that he carried easily to the park by holding onto one of the runners. He then pulled it over the snow behind us by a rope attached to the handles as we trudged upward.

When we reached the top, he lay down on the sled, his legs dangling over the back, and I climbed on top of him, holding onto his collar with all my strength as he pushed off and we flew at incredible speed down the frozen snow. I can still feel the pellets of ice thrown up by the runners stinging my cheeks and the wind howling alongside as my dad steered among the other children and parents who had also come out to enjoy the white miracle of snow in the city. When we got to the bottom and slowly came to a halt, we laughed triumphantly and tumbled off the sled to go back up and do it all over again.

Later that afternoon, on the way home, my dad motioned for me to get on the sled so that he could pull me the several blocks until we returned to our apartment. Except for narrow shoveled pathways, the streets were hard-packed with snow. I remember telling him that I was too heavy and being puzzled by his laugh. Then his expression turned sober as he assured me that I truly wasn’t too heavy. I did get on and rode home. 

I remember my mother teaching me to read. I could recognize the letters from the Alphabet Song she had taught me, but I had been pestering her for more. My dad read newspapers, my mother read reports from work, and I wanted to read, too. So she sat down with me on the side of my bed and explained that just like the Alphabet Song that we sang, if I could put the sounds of the letters together, they spelled out a word. Then she opened a book, and prompted me to sound out each letter of the word she was pointing to. As I did that, I suddenly yelled out the word and understood. It was an epiphany for me. I could read the word. Any word. All the words. I began trying to read everything in sight, again pestering my mother when the sounds didn’t make sense. And to this day, reading is one of the greatest pleasures of my life.

The last early memory I will share with you would probably embarrass my mother if she were here with us. But she isn’t, and I will tell. My brother was almost 14 years older, and there was no one in between. I heard my mother asked more than once by lady friends how it was that after all that time, I arrived. She would reply, “Leah was an accident.”

I thought about that for a while, tried to understand, then finally came up with a satisfactory explanation. It went something like this. One day my mother was crossing Second Avenue, a heavily trafficked road I was familiar with, and was hit by a truck. And there I was.

Little did I know that I had invented binary fission, the means by which amoeba reproduce. After I checked that out with my mother, she never again uttered those words.

METRO photo

By Leah S. Dunaief

Leah Dunaief

At this time of renewed attention to COVID-19, I recommend escapism. I have managed it, and this is how I did it. I immersed myself in two books, one after the other. They weren’t great classics, just hand-me-downs from a person whose reading tastes I respect. He gave me both books, and like a magic carpet ride, they took me to a different time and place with interesting characters for travel companions.

I enjoy historical fiction, and interestingly enough, both books use the siege of Leningrad by the Nazis during World War II as a critical context for their plots. Although we are being laid siege today by a malevolent virus, that act of war almost exactly 80 years ago was far different. Hitler wanted to bomb the city into oblivion, believing that Eastern Europeans were worthless, and survivors were to be starved to death. The German army was under orders not to accept any truce offer that might be extended to them by the city leadership. The siege began on Sept. 8, 1941, and ended, after 872 days of torment, on Jan. 27, 1944. The pre-war population of about two and a half million was reduced at the end to about 800,000 by extreme famine, disease and artillery strikes, one of the most destructive blockades in history. To make matters even worse, that first winter saw temperatures plummet as low as – 40 degrees. The dead piled up in the streets. There were even instances of cannibalism. The survivors were marked forever.

This is a major catalyst of the first book, “Winter Garden,” by best-selling author, Kristin Hannah. It is the story of the relationship between a mother and her two daughters, and between the daughters themselves, that bears the aftereffects of what has been termed by historians as attempted genocide in Leningrad. Anya is a cold and disapproving mother to her children, and they feel cast out to survive emotionally, each in their own way as they grow up. The glue that holds the family together is the father, and when he becomes terminally ill, the dysfunction of the women is clearly revealed. The writing is dramatic and manages to sustain a heart-rending pathos as the plot builds. I tried to keep a dry eye as I read, but in vain. Each continuing episode tugged at my heart and my tears flowed anew with just about every chapter. The surprise ending is a stunner.

Having barely recovered from Hannah’s epic story, I plowed into “City of Thieves,” by David Benioff. Unlike “Winter Garden,” in which the siege of Leningrad is considered for its profound and intergenerational consequences half a century later, Benioff’s main characters deal with the horror as it is unfolding. Seventeen-year-old Lev and 20-year-old Kolya somehow manage to make this into a coming-of-age story, with some laugh-out-loud dialogue even as they are fighting to survive. But don’t be misled. This account of the tragedy of Leningrad is, if anything, more brutal for its contemporaneous setting. 

The two young men, through a bit of incredible yet somehow acceptable events, are sent off by a Soviet colonel amidst a starving city in search of a dozen eggs. It might as well be the holy grail for Arthurian medieval knights. In the course of the quest, they see and sometimes experience some of the individual terrors of the siege in what Benioff claims is historically accurate fashion. Benioff has delineated the plot according to specifics in Harrison Salisbury’s book, “The 900 Days,” and Curzio Malaparte’s “Kaputt.” 

The latter, a novel published in 1946 by an Italian war correspondent, is about the descent of European civilization on the Eastern Front during World War II, and the former, written in 1969, is by the respected American journalist detailing the definitive story of the prolonged battle. Benioff cites them as sources for his novel.

They were hardly light reading, these two books my friend gave me, but they certainly kept my attention. They also taught me a bit, as good books do.

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By Elof Axel Carlson

Elof Axel Carlson

Nedra and I have been in self-quarantine at Indiana University’s retirement community where we settled in November of 2019. The lockdown, if I may call it that, began in mid-March and continues until the President or Governor calls an end to staying at home as a health precaution during the pandemic of 2020. 

I consider myself extroverted and certainly my students think I am extremely extroverted because who else would stand before 500 students and share the pleasures of learning science? As a child, however, I was insecure, terrified of being called on in class, and would hide my head behind the person in front of me so I wouldn’t be called on. 

I like being with people, but I also like times of solitude. I learned to appreciate solitude when I read Michel de Montaigne’s essays. On his estate he had a silo constructed not to store grain but to have his books in a circular library that lined the structure’s lumen. He had his desk and writing supplies and would seclude himself to write his essays and read his treasured collection of books, most of them reflecting the civilizations of Greece and Rome. 

I also appreciated novels about solitude, like Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and how Edmond Dantès spent his years in prison before his escape. Or Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and how the title character had to reinvent the skills of survival as a shipwrecked sailor. I also enjoyed reading Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, his journal of his self-imposed solitude in the woods and a lake near his home in Massachusetts.

Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle is another masterpiece of writing during a round-the-world trip using his cramped shipboard quarters as a place to write from his field notes and away from contact with his scientific colleagues and friends in England.  

In February, before we were forced into solitude, we read for our monthly book discussion group Amor Towle’s The Gentleman in Moscow, a novel about a Russian leisure class survivor of the Revolution who was under house arrest in the Metropol Hotel for some 20 years and who managed to fill his life with adventures and the mental treasures of civilization.  

The hard part is not seeing our children and grandchildren except through Zoom or reading their comments on Facebook and seeing pictures they send. The easy part is using the time to write. Since the quarantine I submitted the galleys for a book in production, signed a contract for a second book, and got my editor to agree to look at ten works I had abandoned over the years when I was too busy teaching and doing research to complete novels, scholarly books, and other writings.

I am sending her a summary of each of these ten books and at age 88 I am in a race with the Grim Reaper to see how many of them I can get published before the scythe is swiped. While this sounds morbid, I am a realist and my life is so filled with the pleasures of living and having enjoyed so much mentoring with my students and solitude with my creative works, that I have no fears or terrors of the Reaper winning the race. 

Elof Axel Carlson is a distinguished teaching professor emeritus in the Department of Biochemistry and Cell Biology at Stony Brook University.