Posts by tag: year in reading

2016: Found Gems

I do read a little contemporary literature, but for a year-end list the more interesting thing in my opinion is always to focus on what’s obscure, the chance discovery, the forgotten tome. So here goes…

Terrors of the Night or a Discourse of Apparitions (1594) – Thomas Nashe

You will not find another author so madcap entertaining as Thomas Nashe. No, it’s not easy to read. When I read Nashe it feels I’m looking through a glass darkly to a time when the conventions of written English were in radical flux, coming into formation. I tried to read Pierce Penniless but my attention felt worn out after about 15 pages. It (and The Unfortunate Traveler and Lenten Stuff) await my attention another moon. From Terrors of the Night:

“As touching the terrors of the night, they are as many as our sins. The night is the devil’s black book, wherein he recordeth all our transgressions. Even as when a condemned man is put into a dark dungeon, secluded from all comfort of light or company, he doth nothing but despairfully call to mind his graceless former life, and the brutish outrages and misdemeanours that have thrown him into that desolate horror, so when night in her rusty dungeon hath imprisoned our eyesight, and that we are shut separately in our chambers from resort, the devil keepeth his audit in our sin-guilty consciences; no sense but surrenders to our memory a true bill of parcels of his detestable impieties. The table of our heart is turned to an index of iniquities, and all our thoughts are nothing but texts to condemn us.” (full text)

Because I Was Flesh (1961) – Edward Dahlberg

Rainer Hanshe recommended Dahlberg to me as being up my alley, and that was after I’d read Paul Metcalf’s high praise of Dahlberg’s Because I Was Flesh in From Quarry Road. So I knew it was time. Well, an American who lived and breathed in the twentieth-century went and wrote a whole book about himself and his mother in soundly Elizabethan language. Sounds risky, but the mad codger flew high. Some will spurn it for its reconditeness, others will smear it for what they perceive as its misogyny, but I revel in its relentlessly rhetorical turns and its abstruse diction. But a small taste:

“Only a man cankered by his own zeal would crimp Scripture in order to call a lady barber a disorderly Magdala. When the time came she would be a steadfast wife and provide a husband who cherished her with a jolly, bawdy bed and fat gammons. She would look just as legal and righteous as any other female householder. Love restores the blind, the palsied and the virgin, and even if a lady barber smeared her bridal sheet with Heinz ketchup, no bridegroom should be so foolish as to examine it. A man who scrutinizes everything that he does–or someone else does to him–will die swearing or live to run mad in the streets with no cover for his nude soul but a syllogism. Besides, a woman is a marvelous chameleon creature, for she can cheat, lie and copulate, and still be the tenderest pullet.” (p. 25 in the New Directions edition)

Frame Structures: Early Poems 1974-1979 (1996) – Susan Howe

“On Monday, massacre, burning, and pillage
On Tuesday, gifts, and visits among friends”

(from Chanting at the Crystal Sea, strophe 20; link to blog post on Howe)

Orality and Literacy (1982) – Walter J. Ong

Tiny but crucial, Orality and Literacy maps out some of the differences between speech and writing, between what Ong calls “primary oral cultures” and societies governed by writing. This is very stimulating for anyone curious about the history of literature, the cognitive dynamics of language, and much much more. A nice reminder of what we are almost wired to forget:

“It is demoralizing to remind oneself that there is no dictionary in the mind, that lexicographical apparatus is a very late accretion to language as language, that all languages have no help from writing at all, and that outside of relatively high-technology cultures most users of languages have always got along pretty well without any visual transformations whatsoever of vocal sound.”

Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization (1994) – Roger G. Kennedy

I became interested in the extinct mound-building civilizations of the eastern United States (many mounds of which may still be visited today) this year. I had visited several mounds throughout my adoloscence but what is there really to be seen or to know beneath the imposingness of a monumental heap of dirt? I’m plagued and perplexed by my partial knowledge still, and no matter how much I read about the mounds they remain impenetrable to me. Kudos to the archaeologists and paleontologists whose efforts have increased our understanding of these early inhabitants of North America, and to such historians as Roger Kennedy who in this book aims for a synthetic understanding of what those civilizations must have been like. It might it help to mitigate a little bit of that amnesia from which Americans always seem to be suffering.

Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History (1989) – Stephen Jay Gould

I found this book at the library’s annual used sale quite on a lark; I headed for the science and nature section with a yen to redress my ignorance in matters of geology. Well, I’m still little more than an ignoramus when it comes to the deep time of the earth, but my eyes were opened to the mind-boggling difference of such alien arthropod life forms as Anomalocaris, Marrella and Opabinia. Gould’s book is a tour de force, illuminating not just the radical contingency of history, but the ways institutions and ideologies shape the way scientists look at history. This was the first book I had read of Gould’s, and it is Cambrian natural history written with the clip and ease of an airport thriller, what a rare thing.

Etudes de silhouettes (2010) – Pierre Senges

A good swath of this book (about 6,000 words) will be published in my translation next spring in the newish London-based journal Hotel. The book consists of short texts (ranging from half a page to 5 pages or so) composed from Kafka’s unfinished beginnings found in his notebooks. That probably sounds odd and not too inviting, but what makes this book so extraordinary is the humor, the undreamt of flights of fancy which Senges schemes up time and time again. I hope I can find a publisher who wants to publish the full book in English. I will keep trying. For now, there is The Major Refutation.

2015 in Reading, Pre-1900 Books, Pt. 1

Well, this is as pretentious as it gets: I might as well be an old fuddy-duddy nodding off in my fauteuil with these dusty old tomes. I was tempted to cheat and throw in a few baroque and Renaissance titles from the end of 2014, but some restraint is called for. Perhaps to be continued… (See also my post-1900 favorites list for the year.)

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Meditations (165 A.D.) – Marcus Aurelius (trans. Maxwell Staniforth, 1964)

I’d begun reading this in 2007 if not prior but could never plow through the middle. Aurelius reprimanding himself, reminding himself to be strong, ever aware of life’s vanity, the final fatality that will wipe all human affairs away, repeats himself, repeats himself, then repeats himself some more. One passage always used to crack me up, where Aurelius chides himself to be like Antoninus, how he was able because of his sparing diet to hold out to evening, not even requiring to relieve himself by evacuations except at the usual hour; his firmness and steadiness in friendship (book 6, section 30). There’s probably no other book I can page through with as much pleasure as this one, although it is always with a strange, perverse irony that I am reading the innermost thoughts (diary) of a man who was writing only for himself and no other. Ever present in his admonitions to himself, there hangs a gulf of difference between what we would like to be, and our natural tendencies (to err, so human). And, on top of that, the awareness that the austerity Aurelius would foist on himself is, after all, impracticable, infeasible.

The Kama-Sutra of Vatsyayana (trans. Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1883)

The Kama-Sutra attracted my attention when I was growing up in Ohio, where I found it in certain illustrated editions in local bookshops, but it wasn’t until I reached Ottawa that I acquired a pocket edition of the classic translation for a buck. I’m no prude, but I didn’t quite expect to find cock rings, penis piercings, lingam ointments consisting of honey, black pepper, and powder of white thorn apple, instructions for biting and scratching during congress and so on and so forth, but it’s all here somewhere or other. There are some tedious parts, and Vatsyayana’s translator, the intrepid Sir Richard Francis Burton, like old Aurelius has an awful tendency to repeat himself, saying in fifty words what he could say in thirty — but remember: To read an abridgment is to try to visualize the ocean by looking at a glass of water.

The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony (1988) – Roberto Calasso (trans. Tim Parks, 1994)

This book exhausted me. Once I got ⅔ or ¾ in, I no longer cared to discover the remainder. But Calasso’s synthesis of so many sources for the principal figures of Greek mythology into a seamless whole, while taking into account the innumerable contradictions and paradoxes, parallels, and echoes is truly a thing of wonder. At least on the way out. It made my head spin. (I’ve included this book here not because it is a pre-1900 book, but because it deals with the ancient world.)

Exercises for Holy Dying (1650-51) – Jeremy Taylor

… every morning creeps out of a dark cloud, leaving behind it an ignorance and sleep as deep as midnight, and undiscerned as are the phantasms that make a chrisom-child to smile: so that we cannot discern what comes hereafter, unless we had a light from heaven brighter than the vision of an angel, even the spirit of prophecy. Without revelation we cannot tell whether we shall eat tomorrow, or whether a squinzy shall choke us: and it is written in the unrevealed folds of divine predestination that many who are this day alive shall to-morrow be laid upon the cold earth, and the women shall weep over their shroud, and dress them for their funeral.

Historie comique des états et des empires de la lune (1653) – Cyrano de Bergerac

A curious thing happened: I reread this Menippean satire especially to find a choice passage I remembered from a prior reading in 2006. The remembered passage I could not find. I just as soon realized that the edition I had been reading was hardly  the same as the one I had been reading in 2006, but was based on a 19th-century edition of Bergerac’s French text, which had been censored posthumously by Bergerac’s friend and literary executor, Henri Lebret. Some 250 years later, it was Remy de Gourmont who, in 1908, had the censored passages first published. For your delectation, I offer this beautiful heresy in my own original translation:

After Eve and her husband had eaten the forbidden apple, God, so as to punish the serpent who had led them into temptation, confined him to the body of man. Nor has any human creature since been born who does not, as punishment for the crime of the first transgressor, keep and nourish a serpent in his belly, begotten by this first. You may call it your guts, and you think those necessary for life, but in fact they are nothing but serpents looping back on themselves many times. When you hear your entrails crying out, that is but the serpent whistling who, following the natural appetite by which he drove the first man to eat to excess, is asking for food too; because God, who chose to make you mortal like the other animals, made that insatiable hunger your obsession in order to punish you, such that if you fed it too much, you would smother and squeeze the serpent; or if, when with his invisible teeth the ravenous beast bites your stomach, you refuse him his pittance, he cries, he rages and releases that venom which your doctors call bile, and which heats your body so that, by the poison he diffuses into your arteries, you are soon consumed. Lastly, to show that your guts are a serpent you hold in your body, remember that serpents were all found in the tombs of Asclepius, Scipion, Alexander, Charles Martel, and King Edward, still feeding on the cadavers of their hosts.

The Garden of Cyrus. Or, the Quincunciall, Lozenge, or Net-work Plantations of the Ancients, Artificially, Naturally, Mystically Considered (1658) – Sir Thomas Browne

A curious work of pattern-finding, taken to madness-begetting lengths. Pareidolia. In question is the pattern of reticulation, crossing, or decussation — also known as the quincuncial (quincunx) or lozenge pattern. Nature and planting provide no shortage of striking examples of it. A series of questions verging on incomprehensibility, which we read across a gulf of nearly four centuries. E.g., If any shall further quaery why magneticall Philosophy excludeth decussations, and needles tranversely placed do naturally distract their verticities? Browne starts by talking about crop-planting patterns, but then gradually the pattern becomes the world; the quincunx subsumes all. Certainly one of the more soporific texts with which we had reason to deal this annum. But the ending makes it all worthwhile, as the Quincunx of Heaven runs low, and ’tis time to close the five ports of knowledge… To keep our eyes open longer were but to act our Antipodes. The Huntsmen are up in America, and they are already past their first sleep in Persia. But who can be drowsie at that howr which freed us from everlasting sleep? or have slumbring thoughts at that time, when sleep it self must end, and as some conjecture all shall awake again?

The Monadology (1714) – G.W. Leibniz (trans. D. Garber & R. Ariew, 1991)

This is a powerful, very short philosophical treatise. Voltaire thought the conclusion a little wrongheaded (“do we not verily live in the best of all possible worlds?”), but that’s of no consequence to us here: it’s what comes before that counts: Each portion of matter can be conceived as a garden full of plants, and as a pond full of fish. But each branch of a plant, each limb of an animal, each drop of its humors, is still another such garden or pond. And so on and on to never any end.

2015 in Reading, Post-1900 Books

With few annotations, and even fewer qualms, I offer the crème de la crème of my year’s reading — books published after 1900, that is. (See also my 2015 pre-1900 reading list.)

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Henry IV (1922) – Luigi Pirandello (trans. Mark Musa, 1995)

This short play blurs the lines between madness and sanity. It might have been my mood, or what was going on in my life at the time, but it had me almost fearing for my own sanity, not just the character’s. Wonderfully disturbing. At Librivox you can listen to or download a free audiobook version, with volunteer voice actors.

Ladies Almanack (1928) – Djuna Barnes

Distinguished for its raunchy, parodic Elizabethan style, and accompanied by the author’s illustrations, this tiny tale was written for Barnes’s patroness Natalie Barney and her sapphic coterie. “Now this be a Tale of as fine a Wench as ever wet Bed,” it begins The full title, in good  Renaissance tradition, is Ladies Almanack, showing their Signs and their tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers. Written and illustrated by a Lady of Fashion.

The Best of S.J. Perelman (mid-20th century)

Marginalia on Casanova (1939) – Miklós Szentkuthy (trans. Tim Wilkinson, 2012)

The Old Man and the Sea (1952) – Ernest Hemingway

I’ve never felt drawn to Hemingway’s novels, but when I saw this on a bargain rack, there was no question we were going to go home together. I was not disappointed: the old man in his lonely skiff, lulled by illusions and pushed past the point of exhaustion, had me in tears through the final pages. If Moby-Dick is too long and too arch for you, maybe just go here.

Goethe and One of His Admirers (1956) – Arno Schmidt (John E. Woods, 1990)

Acquaintance with Grief (1966) – Carlo Emilio Gadda (trans. William Weaver, 1969)

This is the only book in recent memory that had me doubled up in tears with laughter. I did not understand everything I read. As with Moby-Dick, I had the impression that certain of the book’s baroque excesses were excessive by design, verging on a sort of self-parody. But it’s hard to say. Incidentally, this work proved unfinishable for Gadda — the last section is in draft form, far less complex in its syntax than the sections preceding it. Unlike That Awful Mess on Via Merulana, which I haven’t read, this book is sadly out of print; I paid dearly for my copy. Translator William Weaver achieves a rare feat here, of making the work feel like it is essentially his.

The Temple of Iconoclasts (1972) – J. Rodolfo Wilcock (trans. Lawrence Venuti, 2000)

Pas Un Jour (2002) – Anne Garréta

Garréta got a lot of attention and positive press this year for her book Sphinx, which Deep Vellum published in Emma Ramadan’s translation. So far I’ve read Ciels liquides and this book, which stands out as my favorite of Garréta’s. The narrator reflects back on her (or is it his?) different loves, carnal and platonic. The chapter changes for every lover, along with the style. The preface and the afterword ground the book in its governing conceit (notice I did not say constraint).

Out Stealing Horses (2003) – Per Petterson (trans. Anna Borne, 2005)

Oh, this book had me crying too. J.M. Schreiber and P.T. Smith recommended it to me, how could I resist?

Fragments of Lichtenberg (2008) – Pierre Senges (trans. Gregory Flanders, unpublished)

Years ago Dalkey Archive announced this translation as forthcoming and it looked like it was going to come out this past August/September, but, alas, it has fallen off the map again. Through a little conniving I managed to obtain an ARC of the book. (So did Charles Boyle.) M.A. Orthofer reviewed it, with admiration.

An Honest Ghost (2013) – Rick Whitaker

As I said in my write-up of the book: “This novel is built from sentences culled from other books: it takes them out of context, and fits them together into a new mosaic form.” A form of experiment or paradoxically unoriginal writing. Well worth the detour.

Loitering (2014) – Charles D’Ambrosio

Some of these personal essays, like “Seattle, 1974,” “Documents,” “Orphans,” “This Is Living,” “Misreading,” are just flooring in their emotional power and weird, casual poise.

’14 & ’15 in books

Of the books I read in 2014, these are the ones I most enjoyed, which I will certainly reach for again:

On Monsters and Marvels (1582) – Ambroise Paré (trans. Janis L. Pallister)

Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (1959) – Erich Auerbach

La Princesse de Clèves (1678) – Madame de Lafayette

Jacob’s Room (1922) – Virginia Woolf

If He Hollers Let Him Go (1945) – Chester Himes

The Inheritors (1955) – William Golding

The Grifters (1963) – Jim Thompson

The Buenos Aires Affair (1973) – Manuel Puig

The Use of Speech (1980) – Nathalie Sarraute (trans. Barbara Wright)

Ciels liquides (1990) – Anne Garréta

Ghosts (1990) – Cesar Aira (trans. Chris Andrews, 2008)

An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter (2000) – Cesar Aira (trans. Chris Andrews, 2006)

La Réfutation majeure (2004) – Pierre Senges

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As for the year ahead (though my predictions always turn out wrong), here are some of the texts I’m gearing up for:

True Stories – Lucian

A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542) – Bartolomé de Las Casas

Hadji Murad – Leo Tolstoy

History of English Prose Rhythm – George Saintsbury

The Flanders Road – Claude Simon

Passing Time – Michel Butor

Waters of Potowmack – Paul Metcalf

stories – Flannery O’Connor

The Fire Next Time – James Baldwin

Pop. 1280 (1964) – Jim Thompson

Last Exit to Brooklyn (1964) – Hubert Selby, Jr.

The Death of the Detective (1974) – Mark Smith

Pas un Jour (2002) – Anne Garréta

various works – Pierre Senges

The Infatuations (2013) – Javier Marias (trans. Margaret Jull Costa)

The Coming of Print, 1450-1800 – Lucien Febvre

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…. including these other titles, which I really think I should re-read.

La Princesse de Clèves (1678) – Madame de Lafayette (trans. Nancy Mitford (1951), New Directions)

The Trial (1913) – Franz Kafka

Jacob’s Room (1922) – Virginia Woolf

Molloy (1951) – Samuel Beckett

Hind’s Kidnap (1969) – Joseph McElroy

Coming Through Slaughter – Michael Ondaatje

A Tomb for Boris Davidovich (1978) – Danilo Kis

Cigarettes (1987) – Harry Mathews

Austerlitz (2001) – W.G. Sebald

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Here’s wishing the best of years in reading — and all else — to you and your loved ones in 2015. (And thank you, reader, for reading this blog. Without you… it would just be a letter in the void.)

’13 and ’14 in books

The list of books read this year, ordered chronologically by date of original publication. In bold are works I consider well worth their time, and even a second read. Also included is a list of what I project I’ll read (or want to read) in the year to come. (Why, by the way, in the flood of “year-end reading lists” that bloggers flood the Internet with as soon as December hits, don’t I see others making lists of what they envision ahead  in the year to come? My projections from last year from last year turned out to be risibly inaccurate to what I eventually read, and so I for one wouldn’t place much stock in what I say  I’ll read… For now these French classics look like bliss.)

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’12 and ’13 in books

The compulsive reading continued this year.

A year in reading