Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Summer Reading

My big summer reading book was The Tale of Genji, which I read and blogged about in an earlier post. My feelings toward the book are colored by the start of summer and by summer's long afternoons in Central Park. I borrowed from the school library E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime, which I liked enough to be happy to find another novel by him in the apartment in Nice. The Waterworks, my second Doctorow, has a rather predictable plot and characters that seem more symbol than flesh-and-blood. It is a pleasant enough way, however, to learn more about New York City in 1871. For instance, where the New York Library now stands, there used to be a reservoir.

My second loan from the school library was Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground. I swear that I have tried to read the great D many times, but failed every time to get past Chapter One. I thought that the slimness of Notes might help me get into the great Russian, and, boy, did it. I loved its tortured protagonist, who tries so hard to savor his humiliations. "I am a sick man . . . I am a wicked man" is as great an opening as "Call me Ishmael." The bipartite structure of Notes is also interesting. The philosophical part one explains, and is explained by, the narrative part two. Since both parts took place twenty years apart, they comment separately on two different periods of Russian history. Notes has given me the nerve to try again Crime and Punishment.

As for poetry, I read Matt Rasmussen's Black Aperture, which won the Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman Award, given for a first book. The poems look at his brother's suicide in different ways, through rather surreal imagery. The verse is competent, but nothing took away my breath. At the end of the book, I am left with the rather banal thought, what will he write about next? That is a problem, I think, with books that are too narrowly thematic. And isn't calling oneself "Matt" rather too informal? I am reminded of a Facebook post by an editor who complained of emails from strangers addressing him by his first name.

I decided to bring Anna Akhmatova's Selected Poems with me to France. I wanted to like them more than I actually did. The translator, Walter Arndt, took care to render the poems in matching meter and rhyme. The resulting poems in English feel rather dainty and dated, not the qualities that are usually associated with Akhmatova. I thought of Edna St. Vincent Millay while reading the translations. More unusual, more original, in translation, are her long poems. Requiem, translated by Robin Kemball, is very moving in its depiction of her grief at her son's imprisonment by the Soviet authorities. "A Poem without a Hero" is powerfully phastasmagoric. Of the lyrics, I like best "The river dawdles, valley waters gathering" for its vivid detail, "The cathedral doors are flung wide open" for the specificity of its locale, and the wonderful "Lot's Wife," who "laid down her life for a single glance back."

I also read David Kinloch's In My Father's House, after reading his Finger of a Frenchman. I like both books very much; they share a colorful learnedness and lively curiosity about the world and other people. I prefer, however, In My Father's House, mainly because the more personal themes are more, as my students put it, relatable.

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