Category Archives: Currently Reading…

Currently Reading…

I used to be a fanatical  monogamist. The thought of not finishing one book before opening another one was in itself blasphemous. How can you give yourself fully, be open down to your depths for one, if you’ve got another, entirely different and provocative mate waiting to take you places, with an expectation of equal receptiveness? Blasphemy.

But things change. You soon realize, for one, a book is not a mate. A book is there for you, not you for it. If you’re able to divide your attention between books at different times of day and the books themselves deserve this, you can have an extremely fulfilling and functional polygamous relationship. And your brain, it starts to fire differently, in all different places, making it look and feel like a Fourth of July sky. It’s winter in one part of your brain and a musty, jungle night in another, a sterile room in a tower occupies one part, and a pasture with an unfinished log cabin occupies another. The more books you read at one time, in other words, the less room there is in your brain for drivel. (Also, actual important information necessary for, say, work or other similarly silly pursuits.)

Here are all the books I’m being happily unfaithful to right now:

Right after I open my eyes in the morning–

Wittgenstein’s Mistress, by David Markson

I can count on half the fingers of one hand the number of times I’ve re-read a book for pleasure. This is one of them. It’s not a novel. It’s a monologue. One I would pay all the money in the world to see performed on stage, except there is not an actress I know of who would do it justice. The unnamed narrator (one of the best, if not the best, female voice created by a man) is the last person left on earth and she has decided to start writing things down because she is sober enough to realize that memory is a bastard thing. She recalls all the things she has done, the places she has lived (the Louvre, for one, where she had to shoot a hole  in the ceiling to allow smoke to escape,) and her life before all the people disappeared. There is a dead husband and a dead son, whose names become interchanged, and places and events whose defining details are also often interchanged. It is a study, most of all, of the mind. An artist by profession, her  frames of reference for her own history and that of the world as she knew it are populated by the works and lives and interconnected relationships of the greats. She finds a painting in the house she is currently occupying. It is a painting of the same house. How Markson delineates this  labyrinthine confusion makes me want to never read another word ever again.

This is one of the books Tolstoy would have had a field day with. It’s not about anything, it’s about all the words that make it what it is. You just have to read it, is all.

***

Before leaving the house for work, if I haven’t over-extended myself–

A Heart So White, by Javier Marias

Considered Marias’s masterpiece, A Heart So White is another one where not a great deal of action takes place. An amazing story with little plot,  in other words, that I would love to force our Donna to read. The title refers to one of the best lines Shakespeare put in Lady Macbeth’s mouth: “My hands are of your colour, but I shame to wear a heart so white.” She says this after smearing the servants’ faces with Duncan’s blood. Duncan being the man murdered by Macbeth, of course. This is a book about what it means to be married. About what it means to take on and meld with the identity of the spouse, to want to liken your white heart to the other’s black one, to make the other’s deeds synonymous or, at least, in sync with your own. The tragedy, of course, as Marias says, is that “even if Lady Macbeth had plunged the knife again into the chest of the murdered Duncan, not even then would she had killed him or contributed to his murder, it was already done.” It’s about forever knowing and living together with the knowledge that two do not actually, ever,  make one, no matter how in sync, no matter how in love.

***

In the car, for times when waiting is required–

Physics for Entertainment, by Yakov Perelman


Though the fact that I hadn’t read this yet is kind of embarrassing, I am glad I get to have the  fun now and it’s not yet in the past. “Incidentally anything half in the water, half out, would present a most fantastic sight to the underwater observer.” “It is only the living beings that feel the cold more in a wind. It does not cause the thermometer to drop.” Engaging directly with the reader, as if over a beer, Perelman is like the crazy genius uncle you always wanted and now can have (well, the book was published in the 30’s so you could have had him for a long time now, but you know what I mean.)

***

At dinner, if I’m eating alone–

The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by Benjamin Hale

 I just started this, so here’s the description: “Bruno Littlemore is quite unlike any chimpanzee in the world. Precocious, self-conscious and preternaturally gifted, young Bruno, born and raised in a habitat at the local zoo, falls under the care of a university primatologist named Lydia Littlemore. Learning of Bruno’s ability to speak, Lydia takes Bruno into her home to oversee his education and nurture his passion for painting. But for all of his gifts, the chimpanzee has a rough time caging his more primal urges. His untimely outbursts ultimately cost Lydia her job, and send the unlikely pair on the road in what proves to be one of the most unforgettable journeys — and most affecting love stories — in recent literature.”

My criteria for dinner reading: thick hardcover able to stay open on its own and a description like the one above.

***

Bedtime–

Depending on a variety of factors dealing primarily with what kind of dreams I’d like to avoid, though there are, goodness knows, no guarantees–

I is an Other by James Geary

OR

Vox by Nicholson Baker

OR

Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty by Phoebe Hoban

OR

Being Dead, by Jim Crace

****

Besides proving my need for other hobbies, this begs the question:

What Are You Reading?!

-Aida

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S is for Summer, Summer for Reading

I must be going through a phase. This is something many mothers say to explain the behavior of their children, young and old.  What is a mid-life crisis if not a phase?  This particular phase seems to be yet another stage in the life of my changing taste in books and it is probably quite natural.  I had a year once where I read nothing but the Russian classics and devoured them with a calm patience and devotion.  Another year it was the South American writers, among whom I discovered one of my favorite authors of all time, the brilliant, humorous Jorge Amado, who wrote, among other things, Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon and Tieta (the best one, in my humble opinion).   Not worth mentioning is the 18th century phase: Austen, Austen, Austen.  There was the French historical novel phase of my mid-twenties, followed closely by the English historical novel phase, and so on and so forth.

These days I find myself in a phase one might call The Kinder, Gentler phase.  Books about the following are not in my radar at present: alcoholism, depressing family dysfunction, drug abuse, murder, rape, war, and any inhumane behavior directed toward man or beast.  Today, give me a well written book with characters I care about even if they are flawed, a good plot, and a satisfying ending. I believe some might describe these books as “Summer Reads”.  Somehow though, I’d been craving them even in the gloom and dampness of this past winter. They are a pleasure to come home to and a delight to curl up with when reality offers its own doses of grimness.  Here are some of my favorites, in no particular order:

 

 

 

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson — Stuffy, witty Major Pettigrew is retired in his small English village. He meets a lovely self-assured tea shop owner who is Pakistani and begins to find her attractive. Their families and the people of their town are aghast and a very different love story begins.

 

The Whistling Season by Ivan Doig —  A widower with two boys on  a midwest farm in the early 1900s needs a housekeeper.  He advertises in a Chicago paper and when the housekeeper arrives she is nothing like her letters described.  The fun begins.

 

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows — After WWII,  a woman writer goes to the Guernsey Islands, which were Nazi-occupied during the war.  She falls in love with the Islanders and writes of their story. The story is charming and heartfelt.

 

The Handyman by Carolyn See — A young artist who is studying at the Sorbonne comes home to L.A. for the summer to earn money. He posts notices in his neighborhood that “I can fix things.”  He begins to get the calls and the story evolves with all the different situations he is called to “fix,” few of them maintenance-related.

 

The Book of Joe  by Jonathan Tropper — Following the success of his first novel, which has been made into a BIG movie, Joe is called to come back to his hometown as his father is hospitalized.  This is the same hometown and its residents that Joe trashed in his novel.  What happens when he returns is both funny and poignant.

 

Sima’s Undergarments for Women by Ilana Stanger-Ross — Sima’s bra store is revitalized by the arrival of a mysterious young woman from Israel who comes to work for her.  As their friendship develops, each woman’s life is changed in a meaningful way.

 

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka — “A middle-aged professor, aging and widowed father, announces he intends to marry a blonde, big-breasted 30-something woman he has met at the local Ukrainian Social Club in the English town where he lives…”  Need I say more.

 

Waiting by Ha Jin — “Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.”  This opening sentence hardly prepares the reader for the cultural immersion in communist China of the 1970s, and the incredible irony of the ending.

 

 

 

I would love to hear from you about your own phases, your own favorites, your summer plans, your summer reading plans, which flavor of ice cream you prefer and why you think the moon is round. In short, I’d love to hear from you.

 

-Donna

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“…the blighted district inside…”

About 4 years ago, a friend told me about a little-known book I just had to read because, according to him, it might as well have been my biography. That’s what I love most about books: at one time or another in the cycles of your life, a cherished, good book can be your biography. At the time, for one reason or another, I did not inquire further about the book he mentioned. Lucia told me to read it a few weeks ago. For some reason I became curious this time.

Much to the chagrin of the occupants of my life, I finished the 624-page book in two fevered week days. I cannot write a review. I read it too quickly, too emotionally, and too much in awe. Wherever I stopped to consider the depth of truth in a thought or absolute miracle of a perfect, tangibly, piercingly photographic description, I did so completely immersed in the moment, with no consideration for anything other than the utterly transforming experience itself. When I dreamt of the protagonist, Eveline, I was not surprised; when I found her, in more than one incarnation, seated beside me at breakfast or at my desk, I was not surprised. Words uttered by and about the characters, each of whom was someone I got to know so well I began losing sight of the barrier that is the paper upon which they were birthed, would come to me throughout the day in whispers, just on this side of my lips.

I am a naturalized American with no first-hand knowledge of what it is to be a woman shaped by the textures of this culture, its pungent, toxic and bewildering whims, nor its soil nor its skies. I got a glimpse. A shocking, shivering one. The book is anthropological in the truest, basest sense; it’s about a girl becoming a woman in a society of other people and an inner world populated by many selves impatiently queued on a journey to merge.  It’s about a love that is so hellishly difficult to render into words– I don’t know how the author kept her senses in tact in order to go on living, after remembering and reliving such a love for the purpose of preserving it here. It’s about how a caterpillar doesn’t just sprout wings but must disintegrate, turn to mush — only then, after festering as a non-entity, can it begin to transform.

This is not a review. This is only how I feel. I think many will discuss this book at great and learned length. I am not interested in that– I just wanted to tell you that I, one person, had an experience with this one book and it was a memorable one.

 

The book is Anthropology of an American Girl. The author is Hilary Thayer Hamann. You can find more information here. Listen to an interview with the author here. Purchase it here and at Portrait, where it will be released Tuesday, May 25th.

 

 

 

 

 

Posted by Aida

 

 

[Photographs by Hilary Thayer Hamann, taken from the book’s Facebook page.]

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Wherein I reveal that Sarah Hall tricked me

About a year ago I bought a book. I brought it home and squeezed it between two others in one of our overflowing bookcases, which are the bane of my asthmatic husband’s existence, as his greatest grievance is that we will one day find ourselves inanimate because he will have suffocated from all the dust the paper collects and I will have drowned in the books themselves. Suffice it to say, we own quite a few books I have not yet read, and also that there are many of them to choose from, which is tricky– because there are many of them and, well, which do I choose? Time is a factor, of course. The book in question, however, is titled “How to Paint a Dead Man.” The reason I hadn’t read it yet is that, up until early this morning, my answer was always, “Precisely the same way you would a living one.” This morning I glanced at it accidentally and found that I am no longer as certain of my answer as I was yesterday.

Cover designs are either to my taste or not– they do not play a role in any of my decision-making. Titles, however, well, let’s just say there’s a very good chance that I’ve let masterpieces pass me by because their titles did not engage me in a dialogue which I found worthwhile to pursue. I’m only on page 15, but I believe I may have just salvaged one.

I’ll let you know who was right– the me of the past year or the me of this morning. (A conjecture: neither one. )

Read an excerpt here. If you’d like to join me in reading this book, you may venture in this direction. Or you can stop in, find me, (watch me rejoice,) and pick up a copy right away.

Did I mention that I’m only on page 15?

Posted by Aida

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