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Monday, January 21, 2013

What I've Been Reading

All last autumn and into early winter, I couldn't find anything to read that satisfied me. The problem was largely me--even books I had been saving to read didn't please me. I wanted writing that was more surprising, more original. I read plenty of stuff that was well-written, beautifully written, but it seemed to me to be more of the same. On top of that is the problem of getting the books I want to read at a reasonable price here in Japan. Due to the internet I can theoreticaly get pretty much anything, but my budget precludes me getting a lot of what I think I want.

I'm happy to report that recently I have read three books that pleased me.

First is James Arthur's Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon Press, 2012). This is a first book but it reads like that of an accomplished author. I had read Arthur's poems here and there online, and was astonished at their authenticity. After reading the book, I've concluded that there's not a single poem in this book that is included to demonstrated cleverness or technical accuity. There is plenty of technical accuity and some cleverness--don't get me wrong--but underlying each poem is a depth of emotional truth, an authenticity, that is almost palpable. My favorite poem in the book is "Ghost Life," I don't find available online, but have a look at these excellent pieces instead:

"Against Emptiness" from 32 Poems
"On Day and Night" originally from The New Republic, available at Verse Daily (and my 2nd favorite poem from the book)
"Song of the Doppelganger" from Narrative (and a spookily well-crafted piece)
"The Land of Nod" from Poetry (another of my favorites)

The second book I enjoyed recently was Inger Christensen's The Painted Room (The Harvill Press, 2000). I'm crazy about Christensen's poetry, but this was my first foray into her fiction, and what a wild ride it was. As author & reviewer Dawn Pendergast said on the book-sharing website Goodreads, "This is the plottiest plot I've ever loved..." It's an implausible story, or stories I should more appropriately say, since not only are the narratives intertwined, but so are the consequences. Magical realism rears its sparkly head from time to time, but then is forgotten as events are taken as truth, only to later come under the suspicions of whose truth? From the painter who comes to Mantua in 1460 to adorn with his work the home of the local duke, to the family and servants living in the household, to the pope, the characters and their relationships are elaborate and convoluted to the extreme. SInce Christensen reveals stunning details long after an event has been explicated, you may find you want to reread all 119 pages of this little book. There's a certain reveal that I'm dying to tell you about, but will end my paragraph about this book in order not to spoil it for you.

The last book that recently I have enjoyed is Carol Maso's Ghost Dance (Ecco, 1986), her debut novel. This is written in the fragmented style of David Markson, whose work I adore, the stark difference being that Maso's fragments are her own narration, broken into short pieces (not all as short as Markson's however) that defy chronology. You have to pay close attention to know which bits to weave together in order to understand an event that is mentioned fify different times throughout the book. There is tons of repetition, which as you know I love, but you have to read carefully even the most iterated portions, because each version will reveal something new, however minute, and some of them will have huge revelations that will help the reader know how one thread ties to another. This is a book for an astute reader, but don't think that it's a cerebral book only. The emotional content of this book can exhaust you. I do have to say there was one scene in the book I found troublingly implausible, but for a debut novel, one small scene that isn't in the end all that important is overlookable.


Jeannine said...

Dear Jessica,
Have you gotten an e-reader yet? A lot of books, especially the classics, available there for very cheap. Might be worth the investment.
The good news about books is that even if you haven't found anything you've loved in a while, the really good ones are still out there, waiting for you to discover. Maybe they are books about to be reiussued, or they're out of print but available online...

Jessica Goodfellow said...

Hi Jeannine,
You're absolutely right that e-readers are the most economical, most ecologically reasonable choice for people living in countries in which the language they wish to read in isn't the national language. Many of my fellow Americans in Japan have switched over and say they love it. I just have this yearning for the tactile nature of books, but won't be able to indulge it indefinitely that's for sure. The 2nd hand book market here is drying up rapidly, and that's how I've financed my reading habit. But changes are a-coming.
You are right that it's just a matter of me not finding (or being willing to pay for the shipping of) the right books. I've got a list and I know some of the right ones are on it; I just haven't been willing to pay for more than a certain number a year to be shipped....But you are right, the books are out there; it's up to me to find them.