16 February 2015

Can't and Won't: Stories, by Lydia Davis

At the center of this collection -- and by far the longest piece in it -- is a story called The Cows. It is a collection of notes that some observer has written about the creatures in a field. It is dry, largely mundane account. Nothing really happens. The descriptions are not especially vivid; the cows do not evoke philosophical contemplation, nor do they seem to have any symbolic meaning. The account goes on for an astonishing, absurd amount of time. Long enough that you pause at least three times to think, I can't believe this is still going. And yet, it is completely riveting.

Davis has a real gift for this kind of thing; these strange, acerbic little fragments that seem so rich with meaning yet so utterly, amazingly flat. The voice has an almost unpleasant detachment, at times seeming bemused and contemptuous, at others, lonely and eager for contact, though unsure how to initiate it. There is a definite kinship to an author she has a clear proclivity for, Flaubert, though their voices are distinct: this collection contains a series of what she calls 'stories from Flaubert' that brilliantly inhabit his worldview, yet stand apart from the other pieces, even if it is difficult to say exactly how.

The queer fragments and Flaubertian tales are the high points of this collection. Somewhat weaker is are texts bearing the subheading of "a dream." Perhaps because I am currently also making my way through The Dreams by Naguib Mahfouz, which seems to be a far more successful rendition of a similar idea, I did not find them particularly compelling. But it is when Davis writes about a character that seems, unfortunately, to be rather autobiographical, that I find her completely unbearable. I had this problem with an earlier novel of hers, and it nearly put me off her altogether. There is a middle-aged, neurotic, socially awkward writer and translator who occasionally crops up in her stories and whom I find totally unsympathetic and ungodly self-absorbed. Fortunately, she makes very few appearances in this collection.

Overall, an enjoyable read, one that certainly benefits from a slow, lengthy process of periodically dipping into it. But I think some of the other collections, such as Samuel Johnson is Indignant, are better.

10 February 2015

The Power and the Glory, by Graham Greene

I might just not be a Graham Greene fan. I recall having similar feelings after reading The Quiet American, though I've largely forgotten that book: that while I appreciate his prose, it does not seem to engage me emotionally. The vaguely convoluted, hazy plot combined with a fervent, even anguished sort of emotion serves to alienate me from the characters. I watch them with a sort of detached pity: they seem very unhappy. Perhaps they are not very good people, but maybe nobody really is. Or maybe they actually are quite good, and their apparent sins are not so bad. In Greene's world(s), it's very hard to tell.

This novel tells the story of a priest in Mexico who is on the run from a government that is committed to executing the clergy. He is very unhappy, not only because he is on the run, but also because he is a bad priest. Consumed with both guilt and fear, he almost wants to get caught, just so to end his torment. The Lieutenant who pursues him is also deeply unhappy, because he sees how much the people are suffering, and also because he is taking hostages from among them and executing them in an effort to capture the priest. The people, obviously, are the worst off of all, yet they have an almost bovine stoicism punctuated by occasional flares of annoyance or rage which do nothing to stifle their benevolence and ability to behave with utter selflessness. Or is it stupid superstition; the narrator can't seem to decide.

The attempt to prose the moral depths of Catholicism is not uninteresting, but the idea mostly seemed to be that it is all very murky. The plot had occasional moments of breathless suspense, but also seemed oddly interminable, until, boom, it was over. The denouement had a certain mechanistic quality, as though the pieces were obediently slotting into place.

Like I said: I might just not be a Graham Greene fan.

09 February 2015

Reading the World

This article both inspires, interests, and frustrates me. It certainly reminds me how much I've neglected this blog, for instance. As I've been trying to figure out my job/life situation, I had intended to try doing more writing here as a way of, well, trying out other kinds of writing. But I haven't devoted much time to that, in large part because I continue to (try to) work on academic research. And aside from a handful of translations and a few free reviews for other websites, I haven't done much in the way of actively trying to pursue other kinds of writing.

I have been grousing about the growing popularity of books about books; where people set themselves some kind of arbitrary reading list and then chronicle the process of completing it. This is partly because I am more interested in reading the books themselves, rather than some random person's impressions of them. What makes their thoughts so interesting, eh? It doesn't help that their reading lists are often fairly random or insipid. But of course, what I am probably more frustrated by is that they're doing it (and getting paid to do it) and I'm not.

The thing is, Ann Morgan's project -- reading one books from every country -- really appeals to me. It's not just that it's a more interesting variant of the books-on-books theme: it actually seems like a worthwhile and thought-provoking exercise in its own right. What is more, her blog, A Year of Reading the World, is well-written, and uses the discussions of particular texts and springboards into all kinds of fascinating questions, suggesting that her thoughts might be very interesting indeed. Her book, she explains, is not a pithy summary or review of each book, but an exploration of how the book changed her way of thinking. To quote: "I wanted to explore how reading the world can remake us as people and challenge the assumptions that we all grow up with, wherever we’re from. And I wanted to examine why storytelling matters to us and how it has shaped the lives of many of the people I encountered during my quest." This is a description that actually makes me want to read the book. And it's also the kind of thing I would love to think and write about. It scratches at all my contemplations of what kind of writing I really want to do in life, not to mention what kind of writing I'm actually good at. To top it off, the article I link to above discusses the kinds of community that Morgan found while working on the project, and the opportunities that came her way because of it, and it all just makes me very, very jealous.

Harrumph. I wonder if someone would at least pay me to review the book...

06 January 2015

Euphoria, by Lily King

I had a similar experience with this book as I do with many highly acclaimed recent novels: I found the story eminently readable, the writing good and occasionally excellent, and yet... I do not feel compelled to run around handing out copies to people I know (the way I do with books like Boy, Snow, Bird, for instance, or An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter). I kind of doubt that I'll think about or even much remember the story a year from now. The plot was interesting -- the story of a love triangle between three young anthropologists studying tribes in the South Pacific -- but King doesn't do as much with the material as she arguably could. Her main focus is the love story, to the extent that everything else seems like backdrop or costume drama. At very least, moments when the three researchers discuss their ideas could have pushed the novel into something deeper. But I also could not help but feel a bit annoyed at the way the novel repeats the very sins of the anthropologists it seemingly critiques, paying lipservice to the devastating effects of their entry into the community, but meanwhile in utter thrall to the drama of their personal lives, leaving the "natives" as mysterious Others to the very end. 

03 January 2015

Finding George Orwell in Burma, by Emma Larkin

Maybe my hopes for this book were too high, but I found it frustratingly low on both material and analysis. There are plenty of evocative descriptions of tea houses and lush vegetation, but what would ostensibly be the three main topics of the book, namely, how Burma influenced Orwell, how Orwell is perceived in Burma, and what life in Burma is like, all seemed quite vague to me.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the book is the way that the author's sense of the political reality in Burma is repeatedly seen through the lens of Orwell's 1984 -- even as s/he* ponders to what extent the novel was a product of Orwell's imagination. There is this fascinating back and forth between fiction and reality, as Larkin struggles to get a sense of what Burma is really like, and can only seem to do so via fiction, but also tries to use those fictions as an entry point into penetrating the mind of their author. I was often annoyed by how much Larkin leaned on Orwell in this regard, repeatedly summarizing parts of both 1984 and Burmese Days without adding much. In other words, I found myself wondering what Larkin was telling me that I hadn't already gotten from Orwell himself.

What I also found fascinating was how many of the current regime's practices -- and probably Orwell's own ideas, which may or may not have been the backbone of 1984 -- were drawn from foundations laid by the British colonialist administration. It is amazing to me that the British get off so lightly in this account. Aside from these very understated observations, the emphasis is mostly on how much worse the current regime is, and moments of criticism are often balanced with more positive counter-claims. I grant that colonialism and its legacies are complex and that its remnants are not 100% negative, but I find it somewhat outrageous that there is not more outrage. I suppose, however, that it is because Larkin treads lightly on the issue that we can calmly notice the intriguing ambivalence of Orwell. Mingled shame, anger, excoriation, but also nostalgia and complicity. 

It is an interesting book and a thought-provoking one. But it did not quite live up to my expectations.

* Emma Larkin is a pseudonym.

02 January 2015

My 10 favorite reads of 2014

I'm too lazy to type out the whole list of what I read any more (sorry), but my 10 favorites (with links to posts if I wrote them):

Artful, by Ali Smith -- an amazing series of essays/stories/lectures/reflections, describing a narrator interacting with the ghost of a lover, and thinking about literature. Dazzlingly creative, highly interesting, and quite beautiful.

A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, by Liana Finck -- Wonderful, gorgeously illustrated graphic novel about a young woman who meets up with the editor of a real advice column in a Yiddish-language newspaper from the 1920s. Lyrical reflection on immigration, memory, and identity.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi -- A re-telling of the Snow White story about an African-American family passing as white in 1950s America. It's astonishing how well it works, but you'll hardly notice, because Oyeyemi's writing is so instantly absorbing.

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, by C├ęsar Aira -- A throwback to the slender novellas of 19th century German literature, but with the surrealism cranked up a notch. The story of a German landscape painter traveling across Argentina. Incredible.

The Mandala of Sherlock Holmes, by Jamyang Norbu -- A wonderful contribution to Sherlock Holmes lore. It succeeds wonderfully as a Holmes story, but is of particular interest for the way it transports the story to Tibet, and (convincingly) imagines Holmes as fascinated by Buddhism. A totally delightfully marriage of cultural traditions.

Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald -- Finally read something of hers this year. It's a toss-up between this and The Blue Flower, both of which were wonderful. Slightly off-kilter stories and gorgeous prose. Read Penelope Fitzgerald. She's brilliant.

A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O'Connor -- A series of letters O'Connor wrote to God. Quirky and amusing but also a pretty fascinating manifestation of a real struggle with faith. Also visually appealing, thanks to a beautiful edition from FS&G.

Redeployment, by Phil Klay -- Absolutely deserving of all the awards it's gotten, this collection of stories about Iraq and Afghanistan is some of the best war writing I've ever read. Powerful, thoughtful, and often hilarious.

Remainder, by Tom McCarthy -- Stunningly original and deeply strange. This book, to me, was an astonishing effort to depict the experience of Being itself (yes, with a capital B), through the story of a man trying to pin it down.

Wave, by Sonyali Deraniyagala -- A woman's memoir about surviving, but losing her entire family to, the 2004 tsunami. Raw, devastating, but also incredibly moving and inspiring. There are all kinds of movies/books that attempt to show you the remarkable tenacity of the human spirit in times of crisis -- this is one of the few that I found convincing, and it blew me away. 

25 December 2014

A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O'Connor

This is completely amazing. Funny, bizarre, and profound, Flannery O'Connor's prayer journal is more like a series of letters to God. Written while she was working on Wise Blood (which I have not read, but cannot wait to), these anguished missives somewhat paradoxically describe her efforts to be more spiritual. Dear God, I cannot love Thee the way I want to ... I do not know you God because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside. O'Connor vacillates between asking God for things she wants, and asking God to help her be more selfless and not want things so much. Occasionally this results in absolutely hilarious formulations such as: Please give me the necessary grace, oh Lord, and please don't let it be as hard to get as Kafka made it. And other times it verges on completely bizarre, as in one of my favorite moments: at present I am a cheese, make me a mystic, immediately. But throughout, it is intimate, complex, and completely spell-binding. Farrar Straus and Giroux did a lovely job with this edition -- although the introduction is meh (it has a borderline unseemly fascinating with O'Connor's death), the simple artwork on a pristine white cover feels very appropriate, and the inclusion of a facsimile of the entire original notebook is genius. If I had read this a week ago, I'd have been handing it out for Christmas like it was Halloween candy. Go get a copy, stat!