Between bouts of painting or embroidery, I have also been reading. What a delicious, decadent thing it is to have the afternoon off, and a new book from the library waiting to be cracked open! I get shivers of pleasure just knowing that such an afternoon is waiting for me. I can’t get over what a privilege it is to be able to sit down for a spell, open a book, and—how can this not be magic?—suddenly find a distinct human voice, the voice of an author…from another place, a different culture, another time, start to speak.
These are the books I’ve managed to read since August. Any of them familiar to you? If you’ve read a title or more, I’d love to hear what you thought of it/them.
Status Anxiety and How Proust Can Change Your Life,
both by Alain de Botton
Fine, fine, I’m a big fan of pretty much anything de Botton writes. I like the easy, familiar, almost casual way he moves through forests of philosophy, literature, and The Big Ideas. I like the way he applies classical thinking to solve or at least illuminate very ordinary, modern problems—calling on heavy artillery like Aristotle, Seneca, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Montaigne, Proust and many others, to deal with these sordid, pathetic, all-too-human grievances.
Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman
What can I say? Gaiman is a fantastic storyteller, with an imagination that is not of this world. He is playful and experiments a lot—as he did with the stories and fragments in this work—but his play is backed up by a tremendous body of knowledge about all things strange, creepy, sublime; also, a passionate curiosity about all the quirky things that make up the experience of being human. When this writer asks “What if…?” universes are banged into existence, and some of them are so wonderful that I find myself wishing I could apply for citizenship, and move there. Also, his language is a joy. Neither too erudite nor dumbed down, the words are chosen not only for their meanings, but for their music. Gaiman’s stories are perfect to read out loud, because they sound lovely. Not a word out of place, not one unnecessary phrase or sentence. Hard to explain, neither frugal nor extravagant…like Goldilocks’s porridge test, Gaiman’s choice of “the best words, in the best order” is somehow Just Right.
My only puzzled question about Fragile Things pertains to his story about a Chinese Emperor who went crazy designing bigger and bigger maps…maps so true to the original (scale 1:1) that they became quite useless. Gaiman writes a short introduction/background about each of his stories, and I couldn’t figure out why, in his introduction to this particular story, he made absolutely no mention of either Lewis Carrol‘s Sylvie and Bruno, or Jorge Luis Borges‘ short story The Rigours of Science (Del rigor en la ciencia) upon which Gaiman so obviously based his own work on. I cannot believe it was oversight, and I am positive he did borrow the idea from one or the other, if not both…there is no way that he could have stumbled upon the same idea on his own…not because he isn’t clever enough, but because it would have been impossible for a writer and reader of his calibre to avoid Carrol’s and Borges’ story in all the years of his life. Maybe he just didn’t think it mattered enough to mention his sources…*shrugs* Fair enough, I’ll accept that. I’ll accept anything, so long as Gaiman writes it. *smile*
Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev by Robert Dessaix
Interestingly, Robert Dessaix’s wiki says that this work takes its inspiration from “Alain de Botton‘s works on travel, art and philosophy.” Explains why I like it so much, it does run along the same vein. Defying classification, it is a personal travelogue that incorporates, or at times runs parallel to biographical notes on Turgenev. I love both kinds of writing…artistic or philosophical reflections upon travel, as well as stories of the larger-than-life Russian writers of the 19th century. This book was like listening to an orchestra perform a major work: pleasurable and rich, but I had to work for that pleasure, I had to pay attention in order to get something back.
The Library At Night by Alberto Manguel
Books about books are some of my favorite reading. The Library At Night looks at both real , fictional, and mythical libraries. Manguel writes about library architecture, unusual and eccentric systems of cataloguing, the destruction of some of the world’s greatest libraries, the survival of others, about famous librarians (Borges, already blind, became Director of The National Library in Buenos Aires). It’s a beautiful celebration of the library as more than just a storage for books, but a symbol of man’s thirst for knowledge, of human life (as in Borges’ fictional library, where heaven is a library and every life is a book), in our longing—already become nostalgia—for immortality.
After Dark by Haruki Murakami
Not among my major favorites by this author, but I liked fragments tucked away here and there. The world in Murakami’s writing is generally quite stark, lonely, isolated…one gets the impression of too much unnatural light…small cold rooms in large unfeeling buildings…the echoing sanitary hallways of hospitals…and there is always a maddening feeling that everything has gone quiet, expectant, and something is about to explode. In his major novels, explode it does, and there a very satisfying catharsis. After Dark sort of kept that hushed and expectant feeling through to the end, and after I’d shut the book I felt like there were bright white spots clouding my vision, as though I’d been staring at a thousand-watt bulb for three hours, when the lights were suddenly turned off.
An interesting thing about this book is that the persona is Mari, a young woman…usually his personas are male (though I have not read all his novels). Although even as the lead character, Mari is rather meek. She’s cool—I liked her—not a silly, giggling girl, but slightly cynical, guarded, definitely able to think for herself, a reader of thick books. A friend of mine told me she was irritated by the way Murakami depicts women: weak, passive, victims, prizes, or objects. I agree, Murakami’s women are mannequins; but I’m way past the point where I read a feminist slight into this, or insist that a book’s female characters be strong and complex and compelling. Probably because I am past the age of looking for female role models from among the characters in books. Also, it must be terribly hard to be a typical male, and write from within the head of woman. Come to think of it, many of the male-authored female characters I have enjoyed were so likeable probably because they were actually men, trying to be women, and that’s what made them so tough.
The parts I loved in this book are where Murakami writes about the Dark, the Night, the phantom hours between nightfall and dusk…where, he posits, the hard, crisp edges between people dissolve, the boundaries waver, reality twists and our dreams and fears and pain and longing all become part of one dark, deep, monster-trawled ocean. Like Robert Frost, Murakami is one acquainted with the night…and he reveals these long, lonely hours with tenderness, with knowing.
Strangers by Taichi Yamada
This is a great little jewel of a book, a ghost story quite unlike your typical Western ghost story. A television scriptwriter moves into his office after losing his house to his ex-wife in divorce. The building is occupied by businesses and offices—buzzing with phones and commerce by day, but empty at night—and there are only two people who actually live in units, the writer, and a young woman named Kei. The ghosts of the story are the writer’s parents, and there is nothing terrifying about them…quite the opposite, they are lovely people and being able to see them again brings the writer tremendous joy and peace. But the unnatura contact between the living and the dead is killing him. Kei’s love for him seems like the only thing that can save him from crossing over to the other side.
this short novel blew my mind. The writing (even in translation) was refreshingly bland…no, really! It’s like your own voice, when it’s running along, in its ordinary way, in your own head…and that’s what gave this work such verisimilitude: No heroic or poetic pronouncements, no Henry Miller cerebral acrobatics (see next book)…just a salary man muttering and musing to himself. It’s a voice you don’t hear all the time unless you are alone a lot. And that’s what this book is all about…the tremendous loneliness that can exist in individuals, and their desperate attempts to break out of that loneliness, and connect with one another.
The ending of Strangers totally threw me for a loop, too…no spoilers, this is one you’ve got to read for yourself. It’s delicious.
Plexus by Henry Miller
Fascinating Mr. Miller…Plexus is the second in a trilogy known as the Rosy Crucifixion Trilogy. The novel is largely autobiographical, and covers the period in Miller’s life when he and his second wife were bumming in New York…trying to find the money to live in the decadent and high-spirited way to which they were accustomed, but without having to succumb to a regular and soul-killing nine-to-five job. Not yet published, but convinced that he is destined to be a writer, Miller seems so ‘stuck’ and yet manages to hang onto his conviction that one day he will write something, and it will be amazing.
And so he did. This is a massive book, so much (disparate) material mixed into it (just like a real life, I guess you could say) and sometimes Miller waxes sentimental, sometimes he’s a bearded prophet in furs, come out of the wilderness raving and prophetic, and sometimes he’s a lazy and irresponsible jerk, but always, always, he is an artist, deep in his soul—not just when it’s easy or convenient, but even when they haven’t eaten for days, or have nowhere to sleep, Henry Miller knows that to run for security and comfort will cut him off from the writer he is destined to be. And those are the best parts of the book, the art and literature ravings, the gut-wrenching fears of failure, the struggle to stay true to something that nobody else can see. I think every artist should read Plexus, to see that the creative life isn’t always a bed of roses, sometimes it’s a road to crucifixion.
Lateral Thinking by Edward de Bono
this will have to wait…I’m not very deep into it, yet. Jumped the gun, adding it to the mosaic (for symmetry’s sake, no doubt).
I don’t feel comfortable reviewing books…I pretty much like anything that I read, because the ones I can’t stand, I don’t bother to finish. Really, in the end, everyone’s got their likes and dislikes, I think that one should read whatever calls out to her, and not force herself to read those titles—however classical, celebrated, or popular they may be—which she clearly does not enjoy.
That said, give each book a chance, read at least a few pages to see how it develops…to reject a book simply because you have decided you don’t like the genre it has been thrown in with, or precisely because it is the sort of doorstop tome that snooty literary types insist you must read, is just as foolish. A book is a voice, and every voice deserves a chance to make itself heard, if only so that you can make an informed decision about whether you want to go on listening to that voice or not.