I have not written in a very long while here, and this post is something I figure I can write about with conviction. I am so addicted to reading, that since I got my Kindle last fall, I carry it with me just about everywhere. Books are the most weighty item in any of my household moves, and I couldn't live without 10 library cards. Upon moving to Illinois, I got my library card before my driver's license, medical insurance or job. Go figure.
Here are some of the reads that have burrowed into my brain and remain my constant friends:
The Lord of the Rings: I know, I know. Anti-feminist; pseudo fascist (?) claptrap say its detractors, but I am transported by Tolkien's love of language and indeed, his inventions of worlds inhabited BY languages of his own making. His influences, from Beowulf to the Prose Edda of Finland are really deep and his intention; to create a national myth for Britain was a fine one. I do love this work. I re-read it every winter.
Prince of Tides: Pat Conroy is a "baroque" writer, who alas, has lately fallen into more rococco territory in trying to recreate this masterpiece for his lovelorn readers. "You just can't do it, Pat...lightning like this seems to strike only once for most writers." Tom Wingo and his fucked up family are so captivating, even when they are terrifying. All characters are well wrought, all situations and dialogue flow like the tidewaters Conroy depicts. A sorrowful book, and one without that requisite "happy ending", though a compromise of sorts comes at last. I HATE that the movie drawn from this novel so hideously misses the true heart of the story. Streisand's ego, I'd guess. Don't let it keep you from reading this one.
The Great War in Modern Memory (Pat Fussell) OR The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the Thirties ( Piers Brendon) : Take your pick. These are the two best "history" books I read in the past year. I am just finished with the fine work of Pat Fussell, whose book, though 35 years old, remains a cogent investigation of the societal and literary impact of the "great war". It is really a literary work, exploring war literature by the likes of Wilfred Owen; Siegfried Sasson and others, who, stunned into a new awareness, wrote with grave aplomb of their war experiences. Brendon's work, less read, captures the worldwide depression era and his captivating portraits of world leaders and society figures of the era makes it much lighter reading than one might think. He has a deft hand for anecdotes. I flew through its nearly 900 pages.
The Illiad and The Odyssey, Robert Fagles translations. I can't separate them...don't ask me to. The wrath of Achilles and the voyage of wily Odysseus are a matched set. Homer "wrote" gorgeous stuff. The Illiad contains the very earliest version of a literary trope that has now been done a thousand thousand times: Hector, tamer of horses, takes his leave of his wife, Andromache and son, Astyanax as he goes to his certain death in battle...he is wearing his bronze helmet, with its horse hair crest. He frightens his own son wearing this fierce helm...and must take it off to embrace them and say his farewell..the parents share a small laugh at the expense of their offspring and his timidity...then soothe him. It is not an allegory...the leave taking feels "real".
Likewise, the Odyssey, whom some might say is a lesser work...contains the love story of Odysseus and Penelope. The final cipher, by which Penelope ascertains the identity of the stranger purporting to be her husband, reveals much about the staunch nature of a weathered love. A tree...in the bedchamber, planted by Odysseus, has grown into the frame and head board of their bed. Only he would know the nature of their marriage bed. It also lets Odysseus know that his wife has been faithful. (Okay...so he hadn't...but Circe and Calliope were magical creatures, weren't they?) Read the Fagles for sheer readability. I know some more "literary" types or those familiar with ancient Greek, might quibble, but Fagles has done a masterful job.
Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling. Poetic and disturbing, this is the author's first novel. A member of the confederated tribes of the Salish and Kootenai, she grew up in Montana, on the Flathead reservation. This book follows the life of Louise White Elk, who keeps running away from her mission school to return to her grandmother's house on the reservation. She is a force of nature, and the book doesn't "pretty up" her hard life, one of seductions, hardship and a fierce attachment to her Flathead ways, despite being half white. The charismatic, dangerous man/boy, Baptiste Yellow Knife, who adheres to traditional ways, and avoids all contact with whites draws Louise in a way she can't really understand. Tinged with magic realism, this book is haunting and needs more readers. Give it a go, you won't be sorry! (Of course, if you are looking for a little more comic relief on the rez, go for Sherman Alexie...he's phenomenal...I just think Earling needs the push more than Alexie)
My Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan. Not just any Afrikaaner, Rian Malan grew up in the family of one of the architects of apartheid. His great uncle, Daniel Malan had that distinction. Rian Malan left South Africa in 1977, largely to avoid the draft, saying, "I won't wield a weapon in defense of apartheid." So then, this draft-dodging liberal headed BACK to S.A. and decided to investigate not only his family's historic involvement in the horror of apartheid, but his own rather lily-livered fears of how a white man can live in a black South Africa. Haunting. I don't do it justice. (Read Kaffir Boy or Biko for a hard look at apartheid; and Country of my Skull for a view of post-apartheid, Truth and Reconciliation attempts.)
Possession by A.S. Byatt. Byatt is an acquired taste, I think. Like prosciutto and figs, she can be salty and luscious at the same time. This is my favorite of hers. She invents, wholesale, an entire literary world, and the author of said creations. So, she is an author, writing about a group of academics studying an (imaginary) author. She pulls it off with striking ease, and you don't even see the seams in the production. As a romantic, I adored this book. It is challenging, beautiful and rewarding, with touches of outright magic.
Ulysses. I finally read it this year, thanks to the influence of our own Padraig Colman, who made some helpful suggestions last Bloomsday. I feel like I am finally a member of the elite cadre of readers. Not only that...I really, really liked it. Ok, the HOSPITAL chapter took me forever to get past, but the rest was really quite easy to read. Chock full of anything and everything that is to do with Dublin, 1903, I loved the physical nature of the walk through town with Leopold and Stephen. I don't think Joyce REALLY hit the nail on the head when it comes to "how women think"...and apparently his own wife, Nora agreed with me, but, nonetheless, a wondrous and marvelous creation! I loved the scenes at the beach best...both Stephen's philosophical ramble and Bloom's lewd stroll.
The Sixteen Pleasures by Robert Hellenga. I had to include something a bit more "light" too. This is one of my favorite books of all time. A young book conservator travels to Florence on the heels of the 1967 flood of the Arno. An army of "mud angels" from all over the world really did descend on Florence in December of '67 to attempt to save innumerable art and literary treasures from sure ruin. Fighting mold, mildew and mud, Margo Harrington blunders into a mystery involving a pornograpic manuscript by Pietro Aretino, illustrated with lewd drawings. The book, sewn secretly between the covers of a prayer book, lies hidden in the library of the convent in which Margot is staying. In addition, the affair which she begins with an Italian official is much more real than most such literary romps. I think Hellenga captures the female voice and mind better than most any male author I've ever read. This is a sweet read, and if you like Italy, Florence, Art, Books or even PORN...give this a go!
The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. I'm irritated by Rothfuss right now, because the sequel to this, the finest fantasy novel since Tolkien, has been expected for two years now, and he's still honing it to perfection. I love, love, love this book. I dunno even where to begin to describe it. Kvothe, the protagonist, is a musician of rare talent...but also a novice mage, who starts his life in a troop of nomadic performers. After experiencing the death of his parents in one of the most grippingly depicted and harrowing episodes I've read in fiction...Kvothe becomes a homeless, destitute wanderer, living by his wit and talent. He yearns to go to the School Of Magic. (I know....I think I have just described bits of Harry Potter; Oliver Twist and god knows what else...but trust me...Rothfuss is really, really good) The worldmaking he does here is intricate, well wrought and truly mind blowing. Please, Please read this book....he's so damn good.
Whew...Ok, so I cheated and included a couple of "choices" in some entries. I just coudn't decide. There are so many more books I could suggest. Remains of the Day; The English Patient; Born on the Fourth of July; American Blood (by John Nichols of Milagro Beanfield fame); Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee...I could go on forever!
Read on O.S.!