04 July, 2016

The List: Reading April through June 2016

Andre Martins de Barros, La philosophie


Heavy reading predominated this quarter’s reading, for reasons that I couldn’t begin to tell you. And by heavy I mean literally weighty. Have you ever tried holding a two-and-a-half-inch-thick hard cover over your face while lying in bed, barely fending off sleep? There’s nothing quite like the worry of getting smashed in the face to keep one’s attentions piqued, as I discovered.

A byproduct of focusing on big, epic tomes for three months is that this may be one of the shortest “List” posts I’ve done. Is that ironic? Probably not. But limiting the number of books I read meant turning down offers by friends to send me others. Now that I’m past this little phase, though, feel free to indulge me with some summer reading fare if you feel like doing so. Not to seem desperate (merely pretentious), I should point out that the next book in my queue is a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of several hundred pages, after which I can always turn to the prison’s long-ignored library.

* * * * *

A.J. Arberry (translator), The Koran Interpreted
What had I expected? Islam’s holy text was both less and more than my Western understanding led me to believe before actually reading it. If the Bible is the greatest story ever told, the Koran is the greatest praise song ever sung. Neither a narrative nor (to my eyes) a metaphoric puzzle, the Koran, as rendered in English for this well-regarded translation, moves through cycles of verses in praise of God that repeat again and again, perfectly suited for chanted prayers. Although, as one of the unbelievers to whom the book promises “a great chastisement” in due course, as well as not experiencing it in the original, “true” Arabic, I’m sure that there’s a great deal of missed beauty here.

Bruce Cohen, Imminent Disturbances, Impossible Numbers, & Panoramic X-Rays
”I love reading books no one else finds interesting,” begins Cohen’s “Beach Day,” the sixth in this new collection of thirty-nine poems. He and I share the sentiment. My appreciation for obscure, ponderous, or otherwise unpopular books is a repeated subject on this blog and in my real-time conversations, and knowing that I’m in the company of readers of Cohen’s caliber makes me happy.

His poetry, in its long lines and hyperobservant perspectives, reveals a surplus of patience. He writes the way you’d probably expect a middle-aged white American man to write... but in the best possible way. On their surface, his poems deal in matters of a superficially prosaic nature — married life, phone calls from friends, growing older and out of touch, fatherhood, et cetera. But being a poet of some skill, Cohen employs these leaping-off points to associate, juxtapose, and pontificate widely, often quite deftly. Like origami in reverse, he unfolds the universal tucked within humdrum specifics.

When his poems don’t work as well it’s because certain lines stray not far enough from the well-worn path: “One way or another, everyone is an understudy”; “It’s the ambiguity of life that drives us insane”; and “Does your mind trick you into pleasure, is the perceived actuality any less // Than the actuality?” Blah. The rest of the time, however, they do succeed, becoming not mere poems but spotlights whose beams writhe and twist, defying physics to illuminate the elusive, otherwise unseeable.

Leo Tolstoy (Richard Pevar and Larissa Volokhonsky, translators), Anna Karenina: A Novel in Eight Parts
In an interview published this year in Poets & Writers Magazine, the editor of The New York Times Book Review, Pamela Paul, said, “I very much want to reread both Anna Karenina and War and Peace, because I think those are two novels that really evolve along with the reader. Anna Karenina read at age twenty is very different from Anna Karenina read at age forty.” By Ms. Paul’s thinking, I missed out on a delightful exercise in perspectival contrasting, not reading this much-praised romance at a younger age. My twenty-year-old self begs to differ.

I’d never have been able to stomach Tolstoy’s classic before learning a certain level of tolerance for what a young Byron would call “irrelevancies.” Anna Karenina overflows with conversations bearing no direct relationship to anything like plot, with diversions and delays, as its author immersed readers in the blithe concerns of Russia’s aristocracy. Only when the scandal of an extramarital affair shakes things up do we have reason to be interested. Before that, it’s all dinners and balls and hunting trips, and it’s all terribly, terribly dull. Young Byron was by no means a thrill-seeker when it came to reading — he actually enjoyed Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged — but this novel’s preoccupation with status and societal pressures would’ve meant nothing to his autistically indifferent mind. (And I’m pretty sure he would have closed the book with annoyance as soon as Tolstoy presented that dog’s interior monolog. Even thirty-seven-year-old Byron had a problem with that incongruity.)

As it was, I waited, with increasing impatience, for the moment when Anna finally threw herself in front of that train, not because I wanted the story to end but because I wanted it to get started.

Sir Thomas Malory (Keith Baines, translator), Le Morte d’Arthur
Chivalry is dead, and thank goodness. Like a fifteenth-century Pulp Fiction, this flinty Middle English epic of Arthurian legend revels in casual bloodshed, sex, and an abstruse code of conduct that makes me wonder how English society ever survived.
Sir Palomides and Sir Gonereyes entered the field, jousted, and broke their spears. Then they both drew their swords; with his first stroke Sir Palomides knocked his opponent to the ground, and with his second stroke beheaded him. Then Sir Palomides went to supper.
Tra-la-la, another day in the life of a knight.

Late in the book Malory saw fit to introduce the famous quest for the Holy Grail by the Round Table knights, and the civil war that led to King Arthur’s demise. The several hundred pages prior to that are thronged with lists of Sir So-and-sos who battle each other for duty, for honor, or for fun, often losing their heads in the process. It was hard to keep track of who’d successfully pleaded for mercy after being unhorsed (and thereby been rechristened a knight of the Round Table), and who’d got his melon cleaved. Although technically still English, I don’t think I’d have been able to read “THIS BOOK OF ARTHUR AND HIS KNYGHTES FROM THE BEGYNNYNG TO THE ENDYNGE” in the original. It was tough-enough going in this modern rendition.

Andy Orchard (translator), The Elder Edda
Since my knowledge of that culture was largely founded on historically questionable sources (Thor: God of Thunder comic books and the occasional movie about Vikings), millennium-old heroic and mythological Norse poems sounded like a worthwhile read. I was fascinated to find that, for all their brutal intensity, the pre-Christian Icelanders were a funny, bawdy bunch whose national sport might as well have been playing the dozens. Between the many dismemberments and poisonings here, plenty of insult humor smoothes the rough patches.

Wallace Stevens, The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
Like climbing a steep hill, the poems in this collection by the man some call America’s quintessential twentieth-century poet, get more rigorous (i.e., difficult) the further you go. I had no idea what I was in for. A lot of us know “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and the oft-anthologized “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” but nothing else Stevens wrote. That was me, anyway. So I wasn’t expecting the dense, often high-flown pieces packed into these 534 pages.

Stevens had an ear, and a penchant for obscure verbiage. I had to look up many of his choicest words: diaphanes, cantilena, tutoyers, cribled. But far more naturally came my appreciation for his — I guess you could call it his secular spiritualism. It’s on display in “Sunday Morning,” a poem from Harmonium, Stevens’s debut collection, originally published in 1923: “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her, / Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams / And our desires.”

Meanwhile, I did my level best to write off his casual racism as a cultural influence of his time, as unavoidable as it is unfortunate, and to avoid feeling cheated by his frequently too-tidy denouements (which, there again, were sort of fashionable then). I don’t care about his reputation, that the man was made a marble bust in his lifetime; he eventually tipped into pomposity, and in-fucking-comprehensible poems like “Puella Parvula” are useless to me (“Keep quiet in the heart, o wild bitch. O mind / Gone wild, be what he tells you to be: Puella. / Write pax across the window pane. And then // Be still. The summarium in excelsis begins… / Flame, sound fury composed… Hear what he says, / The dauntless master, as he starts the human tale.” Uh, what?). But I’m glad to have at long last read him and grasped what the Great Poet’s name was built on.

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own
My intro to Woolf, one of fiction’s greats. Now this is ironic, considering that A Room of One’s Own isn’t a work of fiction but an essay, addressed to writers and would-be writers of the female sex, advocating greater creative and financial freedoms for women. Woolf’s prose is distinctive and deft, to be sure, but, dammit, I want to get hold of Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, and, in particular, Orlando (“minor Woolf,” as I understand, but with SF elements that I find compelling), so I can see her renowned talents for fiction on full display.

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