02 February 2012

Reading List 2011 : Part Five

Reading List 2011 : Part Five

The Odyssey: A Dramatic Retelling of Homer's Epic (2006) by Simon Armitage

After reading The Lost Books of The Odyssey earlier in the year I decided to go back to the source material. I was in New Mexico, in a small house with no TV or internet, writing my own novel. I needed epic escape (I will go into that when I get to Robert Jordan).

I didn't want to read The Odyssey again. I read it a few years ago and didn't want that book at that time. I picked up this short version by Armitage.

This is a radio play. It was produced by the BBC and it reads like a quick action adventure. I could see it as a series of shorts like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. Told only with dialogue this Odyssey moves fast and loose. Bracketed with an ever watchful Athena, we see Odysseus make his way. There are cuts, and there are characters given voice who are not in the original. But it works, a great adaptation. It also has what may be one of my favorite book covers ever, designed by Anders Nilson.

The Queue (1983) by Vladimir Sorokin

Arriving in New Mexico I decided to read books by authors I had enjoyed. The Ice Trilogy was one of my favorite books from earlier in the year. I decided to cash in on my love of NYRB (some of the most beautifully designed books around) and check out Sorokin's first novel, The Queue.

This is a different kind of Odyssey. The Soviet-era line. Told through only lines of dialogue that are never connected to a speaker, the book manages to tell the story of a man waiting to buy goods at a store. No one knows what the store sells. The line is over 1,000 people long. They wait several days. Through the book, people eat, fight, have sex, argue politics & class, and manage at the end to possibly get what they waited for.

Just like Virginia Woolf's The Waves, this book washes over you and moves quickly. It leaves you breathless and confused. An amazing first novel.

Frost (1963) by Thomas Bernhard

An unnamed narrator is sent by one of his medical school professors to watch on the teacher's eccentric artist brother, Strauch. It is the dead of winter. The village is isolated in snow and ice. The narrator and Strauch spend their days walking in the woods. Strauch tells stories of the villagers and of the land around them. Everything is bleak and violent. Each tale is filled with death and betrayal. The narrator slowly looses himself to the tales. At the end no one changes and the world continues as is.

Bernhard is a difficult writer. He is bleak, full of melancholy, and at times nihilistic. To say you 'enjoy' Bernhard is to sort of miss the point. He takes you and shows you a very dark space at the back of a closet. In there is something terrible. Of the two Bernhard books I read in 2011, this is the one I'd suggest. Just be ready for it.

Kertész' book opens with Georg's father being taken away by the Nazis. Georg begins to work to help pay for expenses. He is 14. On the way to work one day, Georg's bus is pulled over and all the Jews are taken from them. The book shifts into a 14 year-old's description of life in Auschwitz and Buchenwald concentration camps.

Through accident and luck, Gerog survives. Unflinching and shocking in its portrayal of how people can normalize any situation, Fatelessness is one of my favorite books on the subject. It avoids all the cliches and traps of WWII tales. There are no pat answers, or deus ex machina here. There are no tawdry scenes of torment. This is not suffering porn. It is honest and wonderful. Kertész' prose is sharp, to the point, and never wasteful. When he won the Nobel in 2002 they said it was "for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history"

This is the first part of a trilogy that continues in Fiasco and Kaddish For An Unborn Child.

The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time by David L. Ulin

I read this because I re-read The Great Gatsby. And it was given to me because I re-read Gatsby. I did not like this book.

David Ulin's son Noah has to read The Great Gatsby. He doesn't want to. This is a classic teenage reaction to a school assignment. The same kind that has gone on for all of time. In Ulin's hands he inflates this into a 'the times we live in be crazy' message.

I hate this kind of book. The whole premise is false. We may live in a world full of twitter, facebook, and 24-hour news feeds. BUT. We also are reading more as a culture. Those tweets, texts, feeds, are in TEXT. Aside from that anytime someone writes a 'kids these days' type article, I cringe and reach for something else to look at.

The idea here is that teenagers don't like to read. They never have. Perhaps it is the books we teach and the way we teach them and not that they don't enjoy the experience? Let's ask J.K. Rowling or Stephanie Myers or Daniel Handler about that shall we?

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