13 October, 2014

The List: Reading July Through September 2014

Quint Buchholz, Eines Morgens im November

There are several people I have to thank for sending me books this quarter: Ben T., Jersey, the good Lady Val, and my dearest Mum. I’ve been feeling especially in need of some escape lately, and as the Buchholz image above suggests, the books I mention here were a pleasant freedom from the day-to-day.

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Julie Roorda and Elana Wolff (editors), Poet to Poet: Poems Written to Poets and the Stories That Inspired Them
The concept is a good one: get poets to submit their poems about, to, and inspired by the works of others, then provide readers with backstories that explain how and why each piece came into being. What hobbles this anthology is that its contributors are all Canadian. I’ve got no beef with the US’s neighbors to the north, mind you, but I also didn’t recognize more than a couple of names from the table of contents. Notoriety aside (because I know I’m not as well-read as I should be), Poet to Poet constitutes a mixed bag. There’s some rigorous, beautiful, erudite, and even funny work here. There’s also some superlatively mediocre stuff. A prime example of the latter is only made worse by what its backstory reveals: its creator was trying to pay tribute, simultaneously, to John Ashberry, Leonard Cohen, an unnamed poet friend, and basketball legend Michael “Air” Jordan.

Marcus Aurelius (J. Johnson, translator), Meditations
Can there be any wonder about the appeal of stoic philosophy to a man imprisoned? Its emphasis on self-reliance, on happiness from the inner life alone, on freeing oneself from the bonds that are passions, angers, and jealousies makes it an ideal system of thought for someone whose external freedoms have been stolen from him. I’ve trod such a road for a good part of my life — by my own nature, not in concerted practice of Stoicism — so when this work of Stoic-influenced thought came my way, I dived right in. Even though I found much of Meditations onerous and repetitive, passages such as this one from Book Seven, chapter XXXI, yielded some benefit:
As one who had lived, and were now to die by right, whatsoever is yet remaining, bestow that wholly as a gracious overplus upon a virtuous life. Love and affect that only, whatsoever it be that happeneth, and is by the fates appointed unto thee. For what can be more reasonable? And as anything doth happen unto thee by way of cross of calamity, call to mind presently and set before thine eyes, the examples of some other men, to whom the self-same thing did once happen likewise. Well, what did they? They grieved; they wondered; they complained. And where are they now? All dead and gone. Wilt thou also be like one of them? Or rather leaving to men of the world (whose life both in regard of themselves, and them that they converse with, is nothing but mere mutability) or men of as fickle minds, as fickle bodies; ever changing and soon changed themselves: let it be thine only care and study, how to make a right use of all such accidents. For there is good use to be made of them, and they will prove fit matter for thee to work upon, if it shall be both thy care and thy desire, that whatsoever thou doest, thou thyself mayst like and approve thyself for it. And both these, see, that thou remember well, according as the diversity of the matter of the action that thou are about shall require. Look within; within is the fountain of all good. Such a fountain, where springing waters can never fail, so thou dig still deeper and deeper.
That’s just what I do: I dig, then dig some more.

Dylan Tuccillo, Jared Zeizel, and Thomas Peisel, A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming: Mastering the Art of Oneironautics
It shouldn’t take much imagination to understand why lucid dreaming — being conscious and in control of one’s mental nighttime adventures — would particularly appeal to someone in prison. I don’t get out much, so there’s the obvious benefit of seeing some sights, but I also really like the notion of making use of the hours I lose to sleep. Dreams as productivity tools. With lucid dreaming, because it involves full awareness during one’s REM cycles, the dreamer is free to engage in creative and introspective thoughts.

As if that wasn’t enough incentive, the authors offer this tantalizing bit of neuroscience trivia:
Brain waves are simply the measure of the brain’s electrical activity. When we’re going about our normal, day-today lives, our brain waves are in beta, measured at 12 to 30 Hz. Theta waves (4 to 6 Hz) take over our brains while we’re slipping into twilight, and they continue pulsing as we dream. Recently scientists have been looking at a rare kind of brain wave, gamma, which is measured at 25 to 100 Hz. In a 2004 study, scientist Richard Davidson studied the brains of nearly a dozen monks, generously referred to him by the Dalai Lama. Davidson hooked these monks up to an EEG and, when he asked them to meditate on “compassion,” they produced brain waves in the 25 to 30 Hz range — gamma waves! Fast-forward to 2009, Frankfurt University. Six participants were monitored as they slept. The six had recently been trained in a four-month course on how to lucid dream. As they became conscious in their dreams, the machines lit up: The novice lucid dreamers reached gamma, their brains peaking at 40 Hz cycles per minute, higher than the Dalai Lama’s best meditators!

I used to be a prolific lucid dreamer as a little boy. It shouldn’t be too difficult to achieve that again. As this book, full of practical advice, recommends, I’ve been keeping a dream journal for a couple of months and have been practicing techniques for “incubation” and for triggering lucidity. My dream recall improved substantially after just one week of practice. So far, so good. It’s a process, though. I’ve yet to experience lucidity since I finished the Field Guide. Fortunately, I have time between head counts, seven hours a night, to practice.

Christopher Priest, The Islanders
Although a novel, The Islanders takes the form of a gazetteer of someplace called the Dream Archipelago — a scattering of islands indeterminate (possibly indeterminable) in number, located between the world’s warring northern and southern continents — the entries in which lock together like pieces of the puzzle that is the book’s plot. Actually, I should say plots, plural: a murder mystery, a dark fantasy, several love stories. Many entries read as you’d expect, presenting ordinary facts about the islands they report on, facts about topography, climate, industry, history, and currency. These entries are more than they seem to be. The entries consisting of anecdotes, journalism pieces, or personal narratives are also possessed of deeper import than a reader initially suspects. I love this complexity and the way the book winds around and through itself more and more, the further through The Islanders I read. Equal parts earnest and playful, sweeping and intimate, Priest’s tapestry is rich and lovely and makes me badly wish to read his previous novels set in this world.

Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
I delight in Russell’s haunting stories but took years to get around to this, her near-flawless debut novel, the sometimes humorous, sometimes harrowing, sometimes horrific tale of the Bigtree family — fake Indians who run an alligator theme park on one of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands. Once I finally did, I was blown away. What a masterpiece of magical realism!

Albert Cossery (William Goyen, translator), Laziness in the Fertile Valley
Lots of people call me a go-getter now, so it might come as a surprise to find that I used to be a practitioner of profound laziness. Slacking is one thing; the type and degree of indolence that I’m referring to is an art requiring dedication. To live one’s life in such a way as to cast out any semblance of work or strenuous exertion — fucking off, in other words — takes a lot of effort.

Consider sleep. Fully embraced as a pastime, not just as a necessary biological process, sleep is exhausting. If you don’t believe me, try spending a languorous twelve to fifteen hours sleeping. How do you feel when you finally wake? Tired! Too much sleep will make you groggy, wanting nothing so much as to lie around in bed even longer, eyes closed, stretching now and again in spectacular catlike arcs over the sheets and yawning operatically. Some will cringe at the thought of squandering precious time this way; some will nod appreciatively and go, Yeah, that pretty much sums up my weekend. This novel is the satirical tale of a whole family of the latter sort, set in pre-nationalist Egypt.

Egyptian-born Albert Cossery wasn’t someone I’d heard of before. Apparently he wasn’t big in the west. The notorious Henry Miller was a staunch supporter of his work, though, championing it at every opportunity, and during Cossery’s epic sixty-year stay at a Paris hotel the man was regarded as part of a literary elite that included Giacometti, Genet, Tzara, Sartre, Queneau, and Camus. Quite the pedigree. He hung out a lot in caf├ęs. He was also an acolyte of sleep. He and his first wife may even have divorced over irreconcilable sleep differences: he often complained that she awoke too early, and in a short, semiautobiographical story he wrote, about a man and his lover, that the man “had wanted to teach her to sleep, to respect slumber, that brother to death which he himself loved so, but alas! she understood nothing of it.”

In Laziness in the Fertile Valley, Galal has been sleeping for seven years. His brother, Serag, romanticizes work without fully understanding the concept of it, work being anathema to their wealthy family. Their uncle Mustapha and their father, old Hafez, are quite content to idle through their remaining days, never venturing outside their home or thinking about events in the distant city. Melodrama finds them regardless, in such amusing fashion that I read the book (which practically demands a stage adaptation) in two days. I could’ve been doing more important things during that time, of course, but Laziness is a tough thing to put aside.

Fred Chappell, Midquest: A Poem
The poet of Dante’s Inferno finds himself in a dark wood, in the middle of his life, and embarks on a journey through not only hell but through himself. Echoing that epic, Chappell, an acolyte of Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Rilke, composed this intricate four-part narrative cycle that concerns itself with one day — the thirty-fifth birthday, to be precise — in the life of its narrator, Old Fred, an Appalachian poet whose hardscrabble existence in the mountains was traded for spartan country life, thanks to parents with the sense to emigrate to a rural home. “Book proud” and “second generation respectable” by his grandmother’s standards, Old Fred is erudite but born of earth — just like Dante’s narrator, a proxy for the everyman. Chappell did well to choose him for the telling of this lyrical story. In doing so, he wrote a life (surely not altogether a fictional one) that is believable and even relatable. He found the universal, which is no mean feat.

There’s too much symbolism at work in Midquest, too many references and sly allusions to other works, too many delightful turns of phrase for me to tell you about in a mere blog post. Trying to do so would be like attempting a how-to on making your own pocket watch using items found around your home. And Chappell’s structure, too, is a finely wrought thing, with portions of the poem answering others in a systematic manner, employing a multitude of poetic forms in pursuit of the narrative’s aims. This is damned impressive stuff for a thirty-five-year-old to have written (even though I suspect the book’s copyright suggests he was a bit older than that). I’d be a liar if I said it didn’t fill me, being thirty-five years old myself, with some trepidation about my own poetic abilities.

Pablo Neruda (Ilan Stavans, editor), I Explain a Few Things
The Poet’s Obligation

To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or dry prison cell,
to him I come, and without speaking or looking
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a long rumble of thunder adds itself
to the weight of the planet and the foam,
the groaning rivers of the ocean rise,
the star vibrates quickly in its corona
and the sea beats, dies, and goes on beating.

So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my consciousness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the sentence of the autumn,
I may be present with an errant wave,
I may move in and out of windows,
and hearing me, eyes may lift themselves,
asking “How can I reach the sea?”
And I will pass to them, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing itself,
the gray cry of sea birds on the coast.

So, through me, freedom and the sea
will call in answer to the shrouded heart.
(Alastair Reid, translator)
And we thank you, Pablo.

Paulo Coelho (Alan R. Clarke, translator), The Alchemist
I’m wary of any book purporting to have answers to life’s great quandaries. Too often they bludgeon readers over the head with heavy morals when all that’s called for is a decent story. More than that, though, you might say that I like my wisdom the way I like my beaches: rocky and hard to get to. Epiphanies are better when they come the old-fashioned way, organically, through inquiry and experience.

So, The Alchemist. More than twenty million copies sold worldwide. Translation into fifty-six languages. Celebrity endorsements by no less than Julia Roberts, Laurence Fishburne, and Pharrell Williams. Just what is all the fuss about? It’s a simple tale, simply told — a fable, really — about learning to interpret omens, follow your heart, and ultimately find what Coelho calls “your Personal Legend.” Language like that, most of which front-loads the book, at the outset of the protagonist’s journey, gives the undeniable sense you’re reading a self-help book. Inner Fulfillment for Dummies could be The Alchemist’s nonfiction companion title (I imagine the two sold together in an attractive slipcase). Not that the Dummies series isn’t a valuable one with lots of solid information on offer — it’s just unfortunately titled and, for a soul plumbed to such depths and breadths as mine (refer to my comments on Meditations, above), remedial material. At least the message conveyed by The Alchemist is, minus the metaphysical trappings, one I wholeheartedly endorse.

Haruki Murakami (Philip Gabriel, translator), Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
This newest Murakami book is one of his quietest, and perhaps his least fantastical, but it offers the author's enraptured fans (like me) everything they love about his novels. I agree with the Atlantic reviewer who said that Murakami’s plots tend to be formulaic and that some of his sentences are awful yet his books never cease to mesmerize. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki is tragic and lovely, and I recommend it highly.

1 comment:

  1. You have two new ones coming. Shipped Monday morning. Should arrive by Friday if we're being hopeful. Early next week at the latest.

    Fingers crossed you don't hate the selections.


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