Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Summer Reading

The short stretch between June and August is one of the few times I have a chance to read some non-work related fiction. This summer I found two novels that I would highly recommend you add to your own list.

1. Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions
The best way I can describe this book is as a highly literary analogue to Stephen King's Langoliers (a book longtime readers of ITM will recall from Eileen's comments and post). Having lost his wife and two sons in a plane crash, a professor of English (by the way, Eileen has written on everything: depictions of professors here) becomes obsessed with the life of a silent film comedian. After publishing a book on the man (Hector Mann to be exact; the novel can be overly literary at times, with many a screaming symbol), our hero David Zimmer is called to the artist's home to view a series of films he made for no audience. Mann dies as Zimmer arrives, and in accordance with his will the films must be destroyed by sunset. Zimmer gets through exactly one magisterial installment, then finds the others vanishing in a premature bonfire. Throughout the book history has been disappearing: Zimmer's family, Mann's secret life, works of art ... everything is so quickly dissolved to nothing. The book is actually not as dire as I make it sound, and in fact ends up being strangely affirmative. It is also at times emotionally wrenching: the scene when Zimmer, determined to view the Mann films before their destruction, boards a plane for the first time since the loss of his family and relives the moment of their crash (his wife desperately trying to comfort boys who cannot understand the fate approaching them) is horrific, real, weirdly cathartic.

2. Nadeem Aslam, Maps for Lost Lovers
I began this book in London because Aslam will be GW's writer in residence this autumn. I could not put it down, and found myself taking advantage of the late setting of the sun to read it on our balcony overlooking the city. Indeed, it's the perfect book of contemporary London -- or Dasht-e-Tanhaii, as the characters call the place. Like The Book of Illusions, this work is highly literary, and to my mind demonstrates in its deliberateness that it was composed in longhand. One of the main characters, Shamas, is wandering icy streets, thinking about the almost certain murder of his brother and of his brother's girlfriend, probably by her family. Aslam writes:
The almost five months since the lovers disappeared have been months of contained mourning for Shamas - but now the grief can come out. He is not a believer, so he knows that the universe is without saviors: the surface of the earth is a great shroud whose dead will not be resurrected.
Yet the dead are walking, glimpsed as phantoms that shimmer near lakes, or as memories that resist sinking into oblivion. Kaukab, the daughter of an imam and Shamas's wife, is given a richly complicated portrait in which her faith both sustains and destroys her, and in which she realizes the love that bonds her so achingly to her children has been for them -- against all her intentions -- a poison, leaving them in ruins. There is a beautiful scene in which her son Charag, an artist filled with fury for her inability to see his art as anything but insult, returns to the family home after many years away (years during which his mother daily calls his answering machine to hear his voice, but cannot allow herself to leave a message). Neither mother nor son are able to speak anything without detonating something in the minefield of hurt between them, but when Kaukab ascends to her small house's bathroom and feels the warmth Charag has impressed on its linoleum by standing to wash his face, she has to steady her heart with trembling fingers, so filled is she with joy. This wrenching mixture of love and inexpressibility moves the whole novel along. It's one of the best books I've read in a long time ... and I've told you almost nothing of the plot. Nor of murdered Jugnu, who studied butterflies and whose arm had been forever stained with a phosphorescence that bathes the whole book in eerie, beautiful radiance.

So, what did you read this summer that has nothing to do with medieval studies and that you loved?


Eileen Joy said...

For some reason, this summer, "summer reading" did not happen for me. I had three goals: to finish Paul Auster's "Brooklyn Diaries" [still half-read], then read Jennifer Egan's "The Keep," and finally Auster's "Travels in the Scriptorium" [nope to both, although they all look awfully pretty stacked on top of each other in my reading/tv room where, for now anyway, I am mainly watching back episodes of "Will and Grace" and "Weeds" [season 2]. I also purchased to read, when I was in New York City this summer, Milan Kundera's "The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts" and Brad Land's "Pilgrims Upon the Land" [Brad is a friend/former student of mine whose first book was the memoir "Goat"].

So, lots of intentions, but no "fun" reading actually accomplished, unless you count issues of "OK!" and "US Weekly." Yes, I read them. What are you going to do about it? I'm worried about Brad and Angelina--seriously, and Britney.

But I did want to say here [although I think I may have done this already] that Paul Auster is one of my favorite authors, and I basically read everything he writes [plus, check out his films that he either wrote and/or wrote and directed: Smoke, Blue in the Face, Lulu on the Bridge, The Center of the World, and The Inner Life of Martin Frost]. This is a maddening enterprise though, because Auster's work is by turns mesmerizing, then frustrating, then stupid, then brilliant, then magical, then boring, and he only has ONE plot. Seriously: every single book he writes is the same plot over and over again, and it's a good one, always involving sudden and unexpected and untimely deaths, missing persons, mistaken and double identities, amnesia, authors as main characters [plus constant self-referentiality] and various chance occurrences that almost always lead to disaster, and mysteries that are never solved [like those films of Hector Mann's that David Zimmer never gets to see because someone set them on fire in "The Book of Illusions"]. For my money, the two best novels Auster ever wrote [not counting the short works in the trilogy, "City of Glass," which everyone pretty much thinks is his masterpiece] are "Leviathan" and "Oracle Night" ["Oracle Night" is actually my personal favorite, and there's no way to explain the plot except to say that it riffs on "The Maltese Falcon" and involves an author who creates a character who literally just walks out of his life and ends up under the street in Kansas City in an underground "library" of phone books maintained by Ed Victory, a WWII veteran: you just *have* to read this]. But when an Auster book is bad--as in, in my opinion, the case of "Timbuktu" [told from the point of view of a dog] or "The Music of Chance," it can be so painful you have to force yourself to finish it. Ultimately, my favorite favorite work of his, mainly for the way it brings all his favorite obsessions together, but in a beautifully lyrical way, is the movie "Smoke." Okay, enough about all that; after all, I didn't even read anything this summer!

Karl Steel said...

For some reason, this summer, "summer reading" did not happen for me.

Me too, but I know my reasons. Finishing the diss., preparing for class. I did do a lot of reading--in Bersani, in Zizek, in Huot, articles articles articles--but there was certainly a slacking off of research.

Fun reading? Honestly, the only novel I can remember reading is Evan S. Connell's The Diary of a Rapist, which I picked up at 1/2-price books in Berkeley a few weeks back. Why? Because I like the New York Review of Books reprints (I remember reading their Isaac Babel collection years back and loving it). Did I like the Connell? Er. I described it elsewhere as, "Taxi Driver avant le lettre? Recommended to fans of Lagerqvist's The Dwarf, American Psycho, or The Killer inside Me, or maybe Why Does Herr R Run Amok. Keep at it until the end when it assumes a Darger-like lyrical intensity."

And I read about 1/2 of Charles Baxter's story collection Through the Safety Net, in part because I liked the novel version of the story "Saul and Patsy are Getting Comfortable in Michigan." Baxter's what they call a writer's writer: very very good, but for some reason, not all that popular. Barthelme is sort of like that, although he is a lot better known. Patrick White. Christina Stead. Walser was like that until the NYRB republished him. Living with a writer helps one (me) run across a lot of these folk, and all I can do is read over Alison's shoulder.

In re: Auster. Didn't know he was involved with Smoke and Blue in the Face: saw both, years ago, and the Madonna scenes just about ruined it for me. Perhaps I should try again, thinking this time that the wooden shoutyness is something the filmmakers deliberately wanted (EJ: have you seen Coffee and Cigarettes? Very uneven, but the Alfred Molina/Steve Coogan & the Iggy Pop/Tom Waits bits are to die for). I do need to read more Auster, although I'm a bit reluctant because, you know, a certain kind of guy reads a lot of Auster (having made the mistake of reading Lethem's The Disappointment Artist, which reads like literary Chuck Klosterman, I'm very much not wanting to be a 'certain kind of guy'). Now, I've read the Trilogy, of course, read, but thought little of, Moon Palace, and loved The Red Notebook.

But in this household there's a certain amount of Auster animus because of our loyalty to Lydia Davis. There you go.

Anonymous said...

I recently read a fascinating book called _Inferno: The Fiery Destruction of Hamburg, 1943_, by Ben Lowe. Unlike the more famous incident of Dresden being fire-bombed in 1945, the city of Hamburg hasn't become such a byword as Dresden for the savagery and ethical quandaries of modern warfare. But the author goes to great lengths to point out how even in wars that are fought under the best of circumstances (i.e. ousting the Nazi regime), no one comes out looking good and with their moral innocence intact. The harrowing descriptions of what a firestorm can do to a modern city make for reading too arresting to turn away from - in fact, one of the really interesting things the author uncovers is how even some Hamburgers themselves have admitted to leaving their bomb shelters during the raids to witness the sublime event unfolding above them. They too simply had to see what the incendiary bombs were doing to their city, even if it meant risking their lives. The author makes a good case, that unlike Germans, Americans and British have much more work to do in acknowledging our communal, national guilt for the atrocities we committed in WWII.

bwhawk said...

I already mentioned some of the books I read this summer (apart from works within the realm of medieval studies) over at Point of Know Return, but a few that stuck out in my mind were:
G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday--a classic adventure/thriller/allegory.
Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose--often associated with medieval studies, but I read it for fun and enjoyed the compelling mystery/suspense aspect very much.
Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist--a quick read about life and dreams riddled with reflections on destiny.
Lewis Thomas's Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher--a nice collection of interdisciplinary reflections science, anthropology, ethics, and even linguistics.

Karl: I was introduced to Coffee and Cigarettes by a friend last summer, and have not regretted seeing it since. It is disjointed and isn't always brilliant, but it definitely has its moments.