20 June 2011

The Aquarium, by Aleksandar Hemon

I don't generally write about a single short story but I just read this piece* in the New Yorker and was totally blown away. It's pretty heartrending, but it's really powerful. It's about a man (I guess Hemon himself, because it's in the Personal History section, implying that it's non-fiction) whose 9 month old daughter is diagnosed with a brain tumor. This, Wit and The Year of Magical Thinking are the best works about the experience of physical illness, hospitals, and grief that I have ever encountered. None of them are especially upbeat or cheerful, but they are all pretty amazing.

The interesting thing about this essay though, is that the illness of the daughter is happening at the same time as his other, older daughter is inventing an imaginary friend. That in itself would seem like a fairly common trope, but what made it so memorable is that he describes this invisible friend as a symptom of an excess of language: "She has to construct imaginary narratives in order to try out the words that she suddenly possesses (...) The words demanded the story." This, in and of itself, is a fascinating idea to me. But it becomes particularly resonant when coupled with the man's relationship to language, especially as regards this particular situation. The problem is not that he doesn't have words to describe it: it's that "there were far too many words, and they were too heavy and specific to be inflicted on others." There are some other twists to this series of reflections, but to me it's that basic idea of the interplay between language and experience, of language exceeding experience and forcing you to create fictional ones, or of reality being such as to make words painful, that I find kind of fascinating.

It's definitely a story that will stick with you for a long time. Pretty intense stuff. And probably not like other narratives of illness you may have read before - I'd say the aforementioned triumvirate this work has been a part of in my mind is relatively unique in many ways (and I've actually read quite a few narratives of illness - I did an independent study on illness and life writing in college and basically read everything I could get my hands on, which amounted to like 80 autobiographies plus various critical works). Anyways - recommended

*Dude, I can do hyperlinks with this app? Awesome! Also, apologies if you're not a subscriber. But the summer fiction issue of the New Yorker is probably worth buying at the newsstand anyways. Or just subscribe to the magazine. I held out for years, and scoffed at people who said "oh I just read this piece in the New Yorker", and then I randomly caved and became one of those people.

Return of a Soldier, by Rebecca West

(Note: apologies if this entry looks weird. I recently received an iPad as a graduation gift so I'm trying out my new Blogpress app to see if I can post directly from this thing. I'm hoping it will lead to more frequent updates. Though I must say, the whole touchscreen keyboard thing is pretty annoying. I got pretty fast and typing on the iPhone when I still had one, but this is bigger, and is actually a lot more awkward. We shall see.)

This novel reminded me how lovely modernist writing tends to be. The prose is so gorgeous, you could get lost in it for days. "But tonight, there was nothing anywhere but beauty." It's like a warm summer evening in a lush garden. It's a delight to read. Plot wise, however, it's also a really fascinating book, especially from the perspective of questions of identity.

The novel describes a WW1 soldier's return home. I don't want to say too much about the plot, because it's such a pleasure to watch it unfold, but it's hard to discuss what's so fascinating about the book without getting into it at all, and I'm trying to get back into more analytical posts, so basically, if you haven't read the book, you should seriously consider skipping the rest of this entry, getting a copy of the book, and checking back when you're done reading it.

SPOILERS. But not too terribly many.
Basically, the guy has forgotten his current life - including his current wife - and is stuck in a past where he's still in love with someone else. That someone else is coming by to hang out with him while his family tries to figure out how to cope with the situation, cure him, etc. There's an interesting class dynamic involved; the former flame is decidedly lower class, and the current family is pretty rich and fancy. The story is narrated by his sister, who is kind of ambivalent about the situation. So there's the kind of predictable issue of what does it mean to forget part of your life, does it change who you are, etc. There's also the question of what makes a person happy, and what are their obligations towards other people who see part of their life. And then there's the whole World War One and war trauma angle, which is fantastically understated in a really interesting way. I'm not going to say anything else, because you might still reading this, even if you haven't read the book, and I just can't spoil it for you. It's a really wonderful book, definitely recommended.

14 June 2011

Forgotten Bookmarks

This is a really neat blog. Have you ever found an old bookmark, plane ticket, note, picture, etc, in a book you got used, or from the library? I love it when that happens. I have even started leaving things in books to find when I read them next.

09 June 2011

Autobiography of Red, by Anne Carson

This is a really interesting book, a fascinating modern take on the epic*. There are several pieces; a collection of verse fragments (the story of Geryon) seemingly written by an Ancient Greek poet, a few bits dealing with the life of that poet, and then a longer poem about Geryon that seems set in the present day, though it's hard to say where. Geryon is gay, red and has wings. It's slightly confusing. It's definitely not a realistic work, but it's not exactly fantastical either. It sort of trades on the ambiguities of poetic language and does it very skillfully, particularly as concerns the relationship between these various pieces, between the ancient and the modern, and different styles of writing. I read it in one sitting, and I feel like I could easily read it 5 more times and learn something new every time. The language, by the way, is just gorgeous, particularly when describing desire. It's one of the few works I can think of where the descriptions of desire are better than the ones of love-making. I generally am not so into poetry, but this book was the perfect blend of narrative and poetic language. Very much recommended.

*It thus called to mind both Derek Walcott's Omeros and Bożena Keff's Utwór o Matce i Ojczyźnie (which I apparently neglected to write posts on. Huh. Well, they're great. I really hope someone gifted translated Keff into English, because it is one of the most incredible books I've ever read).

07 June 2011

Coup de Grace, by Marguerite Youcenar

This is one of those somewhat vague, dry, dark novels, with a narrator who seems basically incapable of feeling. It was recommended to me as a good book to consider for the class I'm teaching this summer, on concepts of identity as considered through relationships between people, how one person can know another, etc. It doesn't quite fit with that theme, I think, but it would be great in a class on literary portrayals of love (I taught one last summer, is why I think of it). The novel describes the relationship between the narrator and a young woman who loves him. When I checked it out of the library, I noticed that one of the subject keywords was Gay Men, but the book never actually mentions this explicitly, though it's certainly alluded to. Basically, it's the story of unrequited love and the awful things people do because of it - an interesting companion piece to all the romanticized love stories out there...

03 June 2011

Carnet de Voyage, by Craig Thompson

I think that I appreciated the drawings in this book more than I have appreciated the art in pretty much any graphic novel I've ever read. They are really, really wonderful. Just gorgeous sketches. The book is a kind of travel diary - a carnet de voyage - of the artist as he travels through France, Morocco, and Spain. The text isn't all that interesting, to be honest. He doesn't really have a lot to say, and most of what he does say is complaints about being lonely or generally depressed, though he is self-aware about how annoying this is, and seems to be working to improve it. In this, I could actually relate, being a depressive person myself, so I actually kind of appreciated the work for the way it shows you what it's like to be depressive. But if you're looking for reflections on the places he goes, or the culture or history there (a la Guy Delisle's Burma Chronicle, which, you may recall, I loved), you're in for a disappointment. Nonetheless, Thompson expresses a lot about the places he travels to through his drawings. At one point, actually, he has a brief aside about preferring drawings of nude women to photographs of them, and the former as being more expressive, and I think the same could be said of places. I would not be as interested in paging through the photographs of all the things Thompson sees, but I really enjoyed his drawings of them. A very pleasant visual experience overall, definitely recommended.

02 June 2011

On Tremendous Trifles, by G.K. Chesterton

I love Chesterton's writing so unsurprisingly, I very much enjoyed this collection, a series of essays originally written for the Daily News between 1902 and 1909. He has this marvelous dry and witty sense of humor that's coupled with a genuine appreciate of beauty which manifests itself in lovely, elegant prose. There's a certain mysticism in his way of approaching the world, but it's matched by a very English style of common sense (that is refreshingly matched with a strong moral and ethical backbone, and a keen sense of empathy for others). It is a belief - one that I share - that intellectual inquiry can produce a kind of spiritual appreciation of the world: "The world will never starve for want of wonders, but only for want of wonder."
Some of the essays are absolutely phenomenal, others are simply pleasant, but they're all enjoyable reads, best when savored slowly over an extended amount of time. I particularly recommend reading one or two in the evening, with a glass of something tasty close to hand.

01 June 2011

Hadji Murat, by Leo Tolstoy

You know, even when Tolstoy is mediocre, he's still pretty good. Hadji Murat reads almost like a sketch for a longer novel, a War and Peace of the Caucuses. One wishes he'd actually written it, instead of this somewhat disappointing, meandering yet brief work. Although the main focus is Hadji Murat, various other characters appear and occasionally resurface, as though the narrator's attention has temporarily strayed. Shifts in behavior happen over a few lines instead of the 40 pages you might expect (from Tolstoy at least). Nonetheless, there is something interesting and somewhat compelling about the characters - even half baked, they still exert a certain power. There's not enough historical information to give you both the feel and the understanding of what's going on, unfortunately. All the more the pity, because he's dealing with conflict within the Russian Empire, which would be really fascinating to explore further, particularly because he doesn't seem all that sympathetic to the (ethnic) Russians. What an incredible novel this could have been! But alas, it didn't become one, and as is, honestly, you can definitely give it a miss.