21 July, 2014

The List: Reading April Through June 2014

Carl Spitzweg, Der Bücherwurm

Lots of poetry reading this quarter. I also squeezed in some classic literature. Then there was some research for my novel-in-progress, and, although you won’t find a review of it below, playing manuscript doctor with a friend’s nonfiction work concerning the Sherlock Holmes mysteries…. And to think I’d actually worried that this reading list wouldn’t amount to much.

Thanks yet again to Tom Wayne at Prospero’s and John A., both of whom seem to fret as much about my stock of reading material as I do.

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Jesse Ball, Samedi the Deafness
One of my many favorite novels (see my “Forty Favorite Fictions” post for others), Samedi the Deafness made a shocking appearance on the Hole’s abysmally stocked book cart during my March-to-April stay there. Even though I’m not usually given to rereading even the best books, I snatched this one up with lightning quickness.

Jesse Ball’s dreamlike debut novel, described, may leave the impression of a run-of-the-mill thriller — James Sim, a mnemonist by trade, falls into a terrorist’s scheme after finding a dying man in the park, then falls in love with the terrorist’s daughter, a pathological liar — but it’s a book that revels in poetic ambiguities and gorgeous non sequiturs, and reading it again after many years was like visiting with a very old, very odd friend.

Marguerite Duras (Barbara Bray, translator), The Lover
Duras was fifteen and a half years old and fetching, living with her French family in prewar Indochina, when she met a sophisticated Chinese financier on a ferry crossing the Mekong. He offered her a cigarette and a ride to Saigon in his limousine.
From the first moment she knows more or less, knows he’s at her mercy. And therefore that others besides him may be at her mercy too if the occasion arises. She knows something else too, that the time has now probably come when she can no longer escape certain duties toward herself. And that her mother will know nothing of this, nor her brothers. She knows this now too. As soon as she got into the black car she knew: she’s excluded from the family for the first time and forever. From now on they will no longer know what becomes of her.
What ensues is Duras’s telling of the affair with the nameless millionaire, a short memoir written with the sensual languor befitting its setting’s sweltering heat, at once reticent and shockingly forthright. It’s one of the finest examples of the form that I’ve yet read.

Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Islam: Religion, History, and Civilization
In the quest to deepen my understanding of Islam I found this book, a succinct but comprehensive overview of the world’s fastest-growing faith. As with any good educational work, I concluded my reading with more questions than when I began, which can only be of benefit as I set out to write a believable, sympathetic Muslim character into my novel.

Chuck Klosterman, I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling with Villains (Real and Imagined)
What does it mean to be bad? Philosophers have wrestled with this question since antiquity, yet we’re still examining the matter in literature, classrooms, and bars — with limited progress. Still, it’s the journey, not the destination, that offers the most interesting scenery, and Chuck Klosterman, one of my favorite funny-because-he’s-right essayists, understands this. I Wear the Black Hat may read as humor, but it’s trenchant cultural analysis through and through — a look at bad guys major and minor, and the factors contributing to their villainy. Klosterman’s conclusions are as surprising as they are spot-on: Bernhard Goetz and Batman occupy identical moral ground, yet only the Dark Knight can be heroic; the future will retire undefeated but always makes a terrible argument for its own success; and, as much as it seems like they do, the Eagles don’t deserve to be hated.

Rebecca Lindenberg, Love, an Index
What a daunting task for a poet to set before herself, writing a collection of poems memorializing a lover — also a poet of some renown — lost to circumstances so bizarre that they risk eclipsing the work they later inspired. Daunting, yes, but also courageous.

Craig Arnold was traveling in Japan, hiking a volcano, when he disappeared without a trace. I read what I believe was his last poem published while he was still alive, “Meditation on a Grapefruit,” before learning of the fate he met — an awkward place to meet an artist, like arriving at a dinner party just as its most interesting guest utters a scintillating bon mot and exits.

Arnold’s partner of several years, Rebecca Lindenberg, gives voice to the yearning, frustration, sadness, anger, and occasional absurdity of personal loss in this collection, always walking the tightrope strung over the canyon of melancholy and, to my mind, never faltering. Her poems move from plainspoken narrative to abstract lyricism and back again, boldy unbound to traditional form (the title poem is a heartbreaking thirty-page A-to-Z index of her and Arnold’s relationship) or anyone’s expectation of how a “widow” ought to grieve. “Circus Animal” illustrates this perfectly:
My mind is a tough sinew.

You can be so hard.

This sackcloth heart
holds a mad animal.

Hush, spleeny goblin.

We will rig up a house-machine

with paperclips and lipstick, oven-mitts
and lengths of garden hose.

We’ll gild it to distraction.

You can be so hard.

I wish it didn’t have to be

a box that fastens, I wish
for a gentle robber
who can pick locks with his tongue.

Hush, hush, heart-monster —

I’m varnishing
the bone-ladder.

Don’t worry, he’ll be back

any minute now.
James Burke, Connections
Television wasn’t much a part of my childhood. For a lot of kids, growing up in the ’80s meant hours on the couch, watching He-Man and the Masters of the Universe and scarfing bowlfuls of Cocoa Puffs. For me, not so much. My family TV was a portable black-and-white GE with a wire-coathanger antenna and broken-off UHF knob (for which we kept a dedicated pair of pliers nearby). It migrated from room to room (as did the pliers) to suit our viewing whims. However, we rarely strayed far from PBS: Nova, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Nature. We were big on documentaries. James Burke’s series, Connections, was a history program focused on the evolution of technology, with the uncommon perspective that nothing comes from nothing, that the lone inventor is a myth, and that innovation occurs primarily because of a nonlinear confluence of events. It was, for a brainy boy like me, a pretty cool show.

Connections, the book, is basically a print adaptation of Burke’s show, as rollicking and scattershot as chance, tracing the history of technological developments — how the common mosquito prompted the development of air conditioning, how chimneys led to modern air travel, how the thirteenth-century sea trade made possible the discovery of oxygen — in all its happenstantial glory.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky (Jessie Coulson, translator), Notes from Underground / The Double
Because the prison’s property rules limit how many books I can have at a given time, this 1988 Penguin Classics printing of Notes from Underground and The Double in a single volume was like paying ten bucks for a thrift-store coat and finding a fiver in the pocket.

Notes from Underground is another of the semiautobiographical novels without plots I’ve developed such a taste for, a study of one man’s manufacture of a life purely to the purpose of self-degradation, self-torment.
I imagined happenings, I invented a life, so that I should at any rate live. How many times have I — well — taken offence, for example, just like that, deliberately, for no reason at all? And, you know, one always knew that one was taking offence at nothing at all, putting on an act, but one went to such lengths that at last one really and truly felt affronted. I’ve had a tendency all my life to play that kind of trick, so much so that, in the end, I really lost all control over myself. There was one time, or even two, when I simply longed to fall in love. I really suffered, gentlemen, I assure you. At the bottom of my heart I can’t believe in my own suffering, I feel a stirring of derision, but all the same I do suffer, and in a real, definite fashion; I am jealous, I fly into rages…. And all out of boredom, gentlemen, all out of boredom; I am crushed with tedium
The short novel’s first part lays the groundwork this way so that its second, in which a plot emerges involving the forty-year-old narrator’s offense taken (at the hands of old schoolmates) and given (to a young prostitute) fifteen years prior. The bare personal conflict in both of the novel’s parts exposes the man’s nature, as well as mankind’s.

As for The Double, Dostoyevsky’s second novel, published in 1846 and subtitled A Poem of St. Petersburg, this edition’s translator’s notes indicate that the book was initially received by the literary public with a mixture of hostility and profound indifference, and I understand why. Its premise, a man’s life being overtaken by an exact doppelgänger, is often an effective device but was, even in The Double’s day, something of a clichéd formula, and Dostoyevsky used it to plumb the depths of his own self-loathing by way of a proxy, the book’s meek, servile, generally abhorrent troll of a protagonist, Titular Counselor Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin, whose honest assessment of himself becomes possible only after the appearance of his double. But, despite its shortcomings, it makes sense for this book to be read alongside Dostoyevsky’s superior Notes from Underground, since both books deal in the process of witheringly honest self-examination.

Thomas Bernhard (Jack Dawson, translator), The Loser
Consistently violating narrative space and mixing tenses, Bernhard’s ironic novel uses its unnamed narrator’s monologue to drive deep into memory, into three pianists’ history, together at an Austrian conservatory, then solo in the world. From the outset two are dead — one of them the fictional Wertheimer; the other the (real) world-famous virtuoso Glenn Gould, whose nickname for Wertheimer gives the novel its title. And so we have a relentless stream-of-consciousness examination of the men’s lives and untimely deaths, which flubs biographical details (Gould’s and the author’s alike) in pursuit of a different truth — Bernhard’s — embodied by all three characters. It’s a fascinating literary effort, and it puts Bernhard near the top of my list of writers whose work to further explore.

Jess Walter, We Live in Water
A conversation with my friend Lefty Two Apples (not his actual name, obviously) led me to this short-story collection, a prison library find, based on its inclusion of Walter’s quasi-zombie story, “Don’t Eat Cat.” Lefty knows I’m writing a novel set in a zombie apocalypse and thought it would behoove me to read yet another take on the subject — you know, to become even more annoyingly conscientious about my work being derivative.

A few years ago I read Walter’s September-eleventh novel, The Zero, a National Book Award finalist. It wasn’t great but kept me reading — more than I can say for other National Book Award finalists I’ve sampled. We Live in Water is similarly unremarkable. Frankly, I don’t understand why McSweeney’s and Playboy are so keen on Walter’s work, but both originally published multiple stories in this collection. Why does the Boston Globe say he’s “in the first rank of American authors”? What qualities enabled his writing to be anthologized in The Best American Short Stories, a generally reliable selector of the amazing? I think of Walter as competent, but “ridiculously talented” and “prodigiously gifted” (the labels bestowed by the New York Times and Los Angeles Review of Books, respectively) seem like overstatements. So tell me, O Arbiters of Literary Taste, what is it I’m missing?

C.K. Williams, Repair
The poem as meditation. The poem as inquiry. The poem as intellectual gadding about. Williams employs, in this collection from 1999, all three of these, in combination with multifarious subjects, to bring into being a kind of microcosm of poetics. His wandering thought lends itself to a style verging on (appropriately enough) essayistic, with lines that often stretch so widely that they nearly defy poetic form altogether, yet maintain what the poet Alan Williamson called (thereby pinning it down better than I could) “the poetry of the sentence.”

My favorite from Repair perfectly encapsulates Williams’s approach. This in its entirety, is “Shoe”:
A pair of battered white shoes have been left out all night on a sill across the way.
One, the right, has its toe propped against the pane so that it tilts oddly upward,
and there’s an abandon in its attitude, an elevation, that reminds me of a satyr on a vase. 
A fleece of summer ivy casts the scene into deep relief, and I see the creature perfectly:
surrounded by his tribe of admiring women, he glances coolly down at his own lifted foot,
caught exactly at the outset of the frenzied leaping which will lift all of them to rapture. 
The erotic will diffused directly into matter: you can sense his menacing lasciviousness,
his sensual glaze, his delight in being flagrant, so confidently more than merely mortal,
separate from though hypercritically aware of earthly care, of our so amusing earthly woe. 
All that carnal scorn which in his dimension is a fitting emblem for his energy and grace,
but which in our meager world would be hubris, arrogance, compensation for some lack or loss,
or for that passion to be other than we are that with a shock of longing takes me once again.
Parse that final stanza. Parse it if you dare, Williams challenges. It’s his linguistic somersaults and agile leaping from banality — the image of shoes on a windowsill, in this case — to a classical representation of human desire that leaves little wonder as to why he’s won, and been repeatedly nominated for, the Pulitzer Prize.