Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Roundup of Recent Reading

The Penguin History of Medieval Europe
- Maurice Keen

Reading history makes me realize how much history there is to be read. This book, which I'm still reading, covers a huge amount of ground admirably, but it's so compressed that there are tantalizing hints for further reading on almost every page. Who wouldn't want to know more about Walter the Penniless, Peter the Hermit, and Baldwin the Leper King, all names dropped in the section on the Crusades? There are also lots and lots of popes. Anti-popes, even. I probably would never have read this book if I hadn't come across it for free, but it's turning out to be fascinating.

The Picture of Dorian Gray - Oscar Wilde

One of the acknowledged classics that I'd somehow missed. Frequently referenced, I wonder how often it's actually read nowadays. I certainly wouldn't recommend assigning it to impressionable minors, although having to read it in school might rob it of any sinful allure it might have for young minds. Though it eventually shows the bad ends to which hedonism and amorality lead, Wilde can't help making the way of life propounded by Lord Henry Wotton look pretty attractive, if more than a bit boring.

Wilde was truly an aphorism machine. His mouthpiece Wotten spouts dozens, perhaps hundreds, of paradoxical and subversive witticisms in the course of the book. A page-turning fantasy story and a vivid record of a time and place that also deals with serious philosophical ideas, the Picture takes some of the radical ideas of Huysmans' unconventionally structured A rebours (which Wilde more-or-less openly acknowledges in the text) and fits them into a compelling plot.

After The Quake - Haruki Murakami

Death, the inevitability of death, the longing for death, and the centrality of death in Japanese society are mainstays of Murakami's work. The stories in this collection, though self-contained and quite varied in content, all have some connection to the deadly Kobe, or Great Hanshin, earthquake of 1995. In some of the stories the quake is only alluded to only briefly, in others it figures as a plot point, but it is something that is talked about, remembered, or seen on television. The earthquake zone never figures as a setting.

Aftershocks, consequences, are what Murakami is interested in here, mostly emotional rather than seismic. He displays a lot of his range in these stories, from the surreal and fantastic to the romantic and domestic. Sadness and regret are dominant moods, but there are some lighter and more hopeful moments too.

This recent NYT article on short stories and their authors is worth reading.

Flight to Canada - Ishmael Reed

A burlesque, deliberately (and comically) anachronistic treatment of the Civil War period from the point of view of a group of slaves in the forcible employ of a certain Massa Swille. Reed uses outrageous situations and wild juxtapositions (a sex scene occurs during a live broadcast from Ford's Theater of the fatal performance of Our American Cousin) to make some sharp points about freedom, black identify, and the myth of Dixie. I enjoyed this a bit more than the only previous Reed book I'd read, Mumbo Jumbo, which takes a similar kaleidoscopic, irreverent approach to the Harlem Renaissance.

South of the Border, West of the Sun - Haruki Murakami

Death, romance, jazz, mystery. A woman out of the past. Smoke and cocktails. Imagine Nat King Cole or a Miles Davis mute trumpet solo on a slow ballad from the '50s. Then imagine it all in Toyko, and you're starting to get the idea.

Nana - Emile Zola

Must've been a hot (and rather shocking) item when it appeared in 1880. Nana makes clear why acting was once considered a disreputable profession, particularly for women. The actresses Zola portrays double as high class "courtesans" or out-and-out streetwalkers (with some characters operating at both ends of the spectrum), while most of the men are varying shades of pimp or john.

The society depicted here is run through with venality, greed, lust, and stupidity. The aristocracy is rotting, dying from a moral poison that the blonde bombshell Nana has unwittingly carried from the pestilent swamp of the lower classes, or so Zola's thesis goes. Part of the 20-book(!) Rougon-Macquart cycle of the Second Empire, Nana is a beefy, robust book from the days when novels were novels, stuffed with characters, incidents and settings. Conrad's Nostromo is a book I might put into the same category.

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