14 October 2010

Reading diary: August 2010

Do you reread?

Peter recently asked this question in his book blog Kyusireader. My answer: Yes. The first three books I read in August are in fact rereads.

I think some books are definitely worth a second, third, fourth look, and the book will repay each of those rereads with a finer look at the details, at the themes, at the confusion. A reread provides more opportunities for catching up on ... whatever. It either solidifies our first perceptions of the book or ... revises them. A First Reading from the Book of the Author is not the same as The Second Reading from the Book of the Writer.

Our field of experience expands with every book we read. We see correspondences and divergences of ideas in books read so far and life lived so far. Going back to the book I thought I already knew, I'm surprised to find another grain of truth that wasn't there before, another food for thought that didn't perish in the accumulation of life lessons. Maybe because we see more and more of the same and more and more of not-same things under the patina of older age.


46. On the Natural History of Destruction by W. G. Sebald, trans. Anthea Bell -- reread

Literary criticism about the inability of German writers to write with authority about the air bombings in WWII Germany. Sebald is concerned about the interplay of memory and history, the role of writers in times of crisis, and their moral and ethical obligation to bear witness to destruction. I wrote some notes on sections of the book which can be accessed in the following links:

Air War and Literature 1 , 2
Against the Irreversible: 
The Remorse of the Heart

47. The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa, trans. James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís -- reread

Considered by many to be the Great Brazilian Novel of the 20th century, The Devil to Pay in the Backlands, is a flawed and abridged translation that is still cinematic and powerful despite its apparent shortcomings. [A section of the book ("The Slaughter of the Ponies") demonstrates an aspect of Guimarães Rosa's singular style that may have been compromised by the compositional choices of its first translators, James L. Taylor and Harriet de Onís.]

The novel recounts the violent wars raging in the hinterlands of Brazil. It is narrated by Riobaldo, a jagunço or bandit, to a writer who was silent interlocutor throughout the book. Riobaldo confesses his story and his thoughts about them freely and in the process betrays his philosophical meditations on various existential and spiritual questions: the place of the individual in the world, the existence of the devil, the place of honor in a violent world, the forgiveness of sins, the costs of betrayal, the costs of love, the value of friendship, the art of war, the ways to grab power and leadership. One of my favorite quotes: "Life is a motley confusion. Write it in your notebook, sir: seven pages."

I highly recommend the blog A Missing Book for exclusive background information on the book, including the difficulties to translation presented by its writing style. At least two translators, Gregory Rabassa and Thomas Colchie, were reported to try their hand at the task of rendering a new English version but nothing came of the project. The latest news from A Missing Book - indeed the great news - is that Elizabeth Lowe and Earl E. Fitz have "committed" to undertake the impossible job of bringing forth a new translation of the masterpiece. God speed, translators!

48. Six Easy Pieces by Richard P. Feynman -- reread

A spirited introduction to physics. Some parts of it are now dated but it's still a recommended text for those who want to brush up on their Physics.


49. Numb by Sean Ferrell

A worthwhile first novel about a man who doesn't feel any pain. The catch is: Numb (that's the protagonist's adopted name) doesn't remember anything: who he is, why he's got this kind of extraordinary ability, what planet he comes from. His power is therefore painlessness, and his weakness is amnesia.

What do you do with a character who doesn't feel any pain? Why, of course you hurt him physically. Numb is prone to accidents, whether self-inflicted or the ones handed down by fate/destiny/higher power. I lost count of the number of times the title character was pierced, cut, stapled, hammered, nailed, assaulted, slapped, hit, kicked, etc. I lost a lot of blood while reading this book. It's a kind of anti-graphic novel, if ever there was one.

My review here: http://booktrek.blogspot.com/2010/09/numb-sean-ferrell.html

50. Grass on the Wayside by Natsume Sōseki, trans. Edwin McClellan

Michikusa (Grass on the Wayside) is the last book Sōseki completed a year before his death. It is considered his most autobiographical - the translator said this is his only autobiographical novel, but surely every novel has a hint of auto in it). Kokoro ("The Heart of Things"), Mon (The Gate), and Grass on the Wayside forms what can be called Sōseki's trilogy of loneliness. This last book is narrated in some one hundred very brief chapters, each one packed with reflections on family obligations, marriage woes, greed, discontentment, and poverty. It is a beautiful thoughtful book in spite of the protagonist being jerkface a whole lot of time.

I think I said this before: Sōseki is my favorite Japanese writer. His writing about the human condition is pithy.

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