Favorite Books of 2018

Hello there! Long time, no see. I apologize for the silence on this site for the past few weeks. I’ve been trying to explore other avenues for my writing, so I haven’t had as much time to write here. But since we are in the last few weeks of 2018, I thought I’d go down the list of my favorite books I read this year. As always, I will pick one from each of the four major genres.

Favorite Fiction

2018 saw some pretty great fiction reads in The Great Divorce and The Invention of Morel, but neither compares to Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges. I read his Labyrinths first, and wasn’t half-way done with it before I picked up this collection too. It’s still my go-to book when I can’t decide what to read because its depths are inexhaustible. I keep returning over and over to “The Aleph” and “The Zahir,” but “The Circular Ruins” and “Death and the Compass” are favorites too.

Favorite Play

Can I really have only read one play in 2018? And it was Chekhov’s The Seagull? I was crazy about Chekhov last year and that fever spilled over into this year’s posts as well, though it never manifested in an actual review of The Seagull. This is partly because I found the play just a touch boring and partly because it’s so bleak (even for Chekhov) that I was a little shy about inflicting 600 words about it on you, my lovely readers.

Favorite Nonfiction

I’ve always loved biographies, and Robert K. Massie’s classic Nicholas and Alexandra, about the last tsar of Russia and his family, has quickly become one of my favorites of the genre. While I do believe that Massie’s emotional attachment to the Romanov family may have prevented him from being completely objective, the story is still fascinating, and Massie tells it beautifully.

Favorite Poetry

Along with Borges, another wonderful writer whom I read for the first time this year was the Swedish Nobel Laureate Tomas Tranströmer. The Half-Finished Heaven is a recent collection of his selected poems, translated by his friend and fellow poet Robert Bly.

Because a lot of my favorite poetry tends to be very exuberant and ornate, Tranströmer provided a nice change of pace. His poetry has an austere beauty to it, still and serene like the winter nights which so often provide the setting for his poems. Two of my favorites are “C Major” and “Allegro” (translated here by Robin Fulton).

That’s all for now. If you’ve read any of these books, let me know what you thought of them, and feel free to share some of your favorite books of 2018 in the comments.

Fall Library Sale: High Fashion, Sacred Art, and a Whole Chapter on Snails and Frog Legs

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you may recall those biannual library sales that I usually go to. I missed this year’s spring sale, alas, but I made it to the fall sale and came away with a whole ton of books. Here’s the list. Comment below if you’ve read any of them or want to read them!

(Disclaimer: this post contains affiliate links.)

Art in the Early Church by Walter Lowrie

I’ve always been fascinated by religious art. I’m hoping this book will delve not just into the histories of individual pieces or churches, but also into some of the theological debates surrounding the making and use of images.

The Givenness of Things: Essays by Marilynne Robinson

Robinson is one of those authors whom I’ve heard much about but who I’ve never had the chance to read, so it was impossible for me to pass up a near-pristine copy for $2.

Hamlet: Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom

While Macbeth may have dethroned it as my favorite Shakespeare play, I do still adore Hamlet and read everything I can find on it. Some other Hamlet-loving friends have highly recommended this book, so I picked it up.

The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World by Mary Blume

I have my sister, who loves fashion and the history of fashion, to thank for this selection. A few weeks ago, she was telling me about a strange Spanish designer whose dresses that seemed to defy the laws of physics. I got interested and fell in love with some of his more avant garde designs, so when I found this book, I had to get it.

Notre Dame de Paris by Richard and Clara Winston

This apparently out-of-print book is part of a series of books published by Newsweek documenting the history of famous landmarks around the world. This should be good both for my interest in Christian art and my Francophilia.

French Cooking by Paul Bocuse

And speaking of France, this enormous cookbook collects about 1,200 recipes from the restaurant of the world-famous French chef Paul Bocuse. These recipes range from basic peasant food to more exotic dishes, like fried frog legs, several different snail dishes, and a black truffle soup whose ingredients cost roughly $200 per person(!).

Tartuffe by Molière, translated by Richard Wilbur

As we’ve discussed before on this blog, Richard Wilbur is a phenomenal translator. I’m trying to get into more classic French literature, so this will be a great place to start.

The Virtuosi: Classical Music’s Great Performers from Paganini to Pavarotti by Harold C. Schonberg

A collection of short biographies of some of the greatest performers in musical history. The subtitle led me to believe that the scope of this book encompassed the nineteenth and twentieth centuries only. It actually begins around the turn of the eighteenth century, with a chapter on the notorious castrato singers of Italy, and ends in the late twentieth century with opera greats like Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo. I love classical music, and am even beginning to get into opera, so books like this are fascinating to me.

Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” by John Donne

Painting of the young Donne, c. 1595. Artist unknown.

It seems remiss on my part that I’ve written nine poem essays for this site so far and not one of them has been about John Donne. After all, Donne is one of my favorite poets, and one of the writers who got me interested in poetry in the first place.

It’s almost as if there are two John Donnes: there’s the—ahem—eager young poet who wrote racy seduction ballads and there’s the sober old minister examining himself and his conscience before a terrifying though merciful God. Even more fascinating than the fact that this contrast exists in the same poet is when the two personalities overlap, as they do in Holy Sonnet XIV, otherwise known as “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new.
I, like an usurp’d town to another due,
Labour to admit you, but oh, to no end;
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

From the very first word, this poem already has a loud, brash sound that distinguishes it from most of the other Holy Sonnets, and from most sonnets in general: Continue reading “Holy Sonnet XIV: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God” by John Donne”

Book Review: The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares

Translator: Ruth L. C. Simms

Original Language: Spanish

Year of First Publication: 1940

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2003

Number of Pages: 103

Publisher: The New York Review of Books

Genre: Fiction

Sub-genre: Fantasy

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

Casares with his future wife, poet and novelist Silvina Ocampo, 1939.

While reading things by and about Jorge Luis Borges, the name Adolfo Bioy Casares comes up fairly often. He was a close friend and collaborator of Borges’s and shared many of his writing interests, among them fantasy literature, adventure stories, and metaphysical fiction. His most famous book, The Invention of Morel, combines elements of all three into 103 brief pages.

Unfortunately, to say all that I want to say about this book requires that I give much of the plot away. So, consider yourself warned.

After being wrongfully convicted of a crime, our unnamed protagonist (sometimes referred to as “the Fugitive”) escapes to a deserted island somewhere around Polynesia. All is very quiet until one day when a boat arrives carrying a group of vacationers. Initially, the main character tries to avoid these people, afraid that they might turn him in to the police. Soon, though, obsession surpasses paranoia when he finds himself falling in love with one of the vacationers, a woman named Faustine. He tries to speak to Faustine and to give her gifts, only to find every time that she behaves as though she can’t see or hear him. After following the group for some time, the Fugitive learns that these people aren’t really people at all: they are projections of people. Morel, the man who organized the trip, is a scientist who has invented what he calls “a new kind of photograph”: a machine that records people and places, with all of their sensory details, in three dimensions, then artificially recreates that particular moment in time. What the Fugitive has been watching is not a group of people on vacation but rather the “record” that Morel took of their vacation, played over and over by machines hidden on the island. Continue reading “Book Review: The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares”

Book Review: Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges

Translators: James E. Irby, Donald A. Yates, John Fine, Harriet de Onís, Julian Palley, Dudley Fitts, L. A. Murillo, and Anthony Kerrigan

Original Language: Spanish

Year of First Publication: 1962

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2007

Number of Pages: 256

Publisher: New Directions

Genre: Fiction and nonfiction

Sub-genre: Fantasy, short stories, essays

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

In C. S. Lewis’s memoir Surprised by Joy, he recalls his first time reading Phantastes by George MacDonald and what a huge impact that novel had on him: “it is as if I had been carried sleeping across the frontier, or as if I had died in the old country and could never remember how I came alive in the new.” Words like that come to mind when I think of Labyrinths. It feels like a sort of Rubicon has been crossed, like I’ll never read any book—and especially not any book of fantasy—the same way again.

One of the things that makes Borges a unique writer is that, similar to John Donne in poetry, he considers thinking to be an aesthetically important act in itself. So where Donne likes to play with the implications of an outrageous comparison, Borges explores the contours of an outrageous idea. What if a man could remember every minute detail of everything he had ever seen? What if the universe was one enormous library? What if a man could create another man by dreaming him into existence? Big, strange, impossible ideas like this occupy the majority of this book, giving it the kind of upside down and utterly new vision of the world that I love to read about.

These stories infinitely reward rereading. It’s only on the second or third time that you start to notice the extremely subtle foreshadowing and the little details that reveal even further depths of the characters and the situations they face. At least one of those rereads should be done with Google (or a pile of reference books, if that’s more your thing) on hand to find out what all of the allusions and references mean. Borges was an incredibly well-read man, practically an expert in English- and Spanish-language literature, as well as having vast knowledge of many more obscure areas of study. Once you begin to unravel some of the references, you uncover yet another layer of meaning to the story. It’s true that many of these stories involve similar themes, images, tropes, and even the same characters sometimes. At the same time, this book has a vastness to it that is inexhaustible.

To point out a few stories that especially stand out to me:

“The Circular Ruins” – It’s one thing to write about creation, hubris, and the limits of human achievement. It’s another thing entirely to make a person feel genuine awe and terror at these things. Loosely based on the myth of Pygmalion, this story concerns a sorcerer who travels to the remote ruins of an ancient temple where he hopes to create a man by dreaming him. It is easily my favorite story in the book.

“Death and the Compass” – Borges’s parody of/homage to the detective fiction genre. Borges was an ardent admirer of G. K. Chesterton, and this story is slightly reminiscent of Chesterton stories like “The Blue Cross.” Of course, the weird metaphysical twist at the end is all Borges.

“The Zahir” – This story concerns a man who falls under the diabolical influence of a mystical coin. It takes part of its inspiration from Tennyson’s “Flower in the crannied wall,” one of my favorite poems, and explores Tennyson’s ideas about God and reality in more depth. I’ve probably reread this one more times than any other story in the book.

Borges at L’Hôtel in Paris in 1968.

Labyrinths is not only stories though: Borges was a prolific essayist and this book collects ten of his essays as well. Not only do these help to give a fuller picture of Borges scope as a writer, many of them also act almost as companion pieces to one or more of the stories. “The Mirror of Enigmas,” for instance, recalls “The Zahir,” while “Valéry as Symbol,” about the French symbolist poet Paul Valéry, brings to mind “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”

Ultimately, I ended up loving the first few stories I read in this so much that I bought Borges’s Collected Fictions and began reading that before I was even halfway done with Labyrinths. I am quite in love with these books now and I plan to remain so.

“L’invitation au voyage” by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Richard Wilbur

Title page to the first edition of Les fleurs du mal with notes by Baudelaire.

Translation can be a controversial topic, and poetry translation is even more so. In any act of translation, the obstacles posed by the two languages’ differing histories, cultural contexts, and nuances of meaning can be almost insurmountable. Add to that the fact that the very existence of a poem depends on its being intimately involved with the features of its own language. Sound, rhythm, denotation, connotation, and even the histories of individual words or phrases can all carry meaning. To move a poem from one language to another and keep the poetic aspects of it is nearly impossible. Some believe that it is impossible. I personally prefer to take a more optimistic view: will Baudelaire in English ever be the same as Baudelaire in French? Of course not. Can we hope that some intrepid Anglophone might create for us, if not the same thing, at least something similar to the experience of Baudelaire in French? I think so.

Wilbur in the 1960s.

An ideal poetry translator should, as far as he is able, respect the form, sound, and wording of the original poem. At the same time, he should make it pleasant to read as English verse. One translator who succeeded marvelously at that was Richard Wilbur. A two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and former Poet Laureate of the United States, Wilbur is justly heralded for his original poetry, but he has also translated dozens of poets from French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Russian. He never, to my knowledge, published a book dedicated solely to translations, but scattered throughout his collections are gems like “L’invitation au voyage,” works that, without completely sacrificing lexical and formal fidelity, still capture some of the original’s beauty in English.

First, here’s the poem as originally published by Baudelaire in Les fleurs du mal: Continue reading ““L’invitation au voyage” by Charles Baudelaire, translated by Richard Wilbur”

Bookish Links — July 2018

Photo by Sydney Rae.
  • Another neat Youtube project I found recently is Blank Verse Films, a video series for readings by contemporary poets. You can check that out here.
  • “Growing up in America, I was made to think poetry is useless, that it’s dead or elitist or merely decorative. In Iran, meanwhile, there is no higher art form. Poets aren’t just venerated—they are loved. Everyone seems to have a favorite poet and can recite whole poems by heart. Iranians know that when you memorize a poem it becomes part of you. You carry it with you, even if in fragments, even in another country”: on the work of the controversial Iranian poet Forugh Farrokhzad.
  • Finally, I’m currently reading (and loving) Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths so my friend Matthew recommended this to me: a slightly strange and fascinating interview that Borges gave to William F. Buckley in 1977.

Book Review: The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis

Year of First Publication: 1945

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2015

Number of Pages: 160

Publisher: Zondervan

Genre: Fiction

Sub-Genres: Speculative fiction

Subjects: Heaven, Hell, damnation, death, desire

Buy it here (disclosure: I use affiliate links).

I glanced round the bus. Though the windows were closed, and soon muffed, the bus was full of light. It was a cruel light. I shrank from the faces and forms by which I was surrounded. They were all fixed faces, full not of possibilities but of impossibilities, some gaunt, some bloated, some glaring with idiotic ferocity, some drowned beyond recovery in dreams; but all, in one way or another, distorted and faded. One had a feeling that they might fall to pieces at any moment if the light grew much stronger. Then—there was a mirror on the end wall of the bus—I caught sight of my own.

And still the light grew.

Chapter 2

As I mentioned in last month’s “Bookish Links” post, I’m participating in an online book club started by Joy Clarkson of the podcast Speaking with Joy. Basically, we read two chapters of The Great Divorce every week, Joy posts questions about the chapters on social media, and then we answer them and discuss what we read. Joy has studied this book inside and out, so the discussions she starts and the insight she provides—through her blog and her podcast—are incredibly illuminating. It’s also really fun to study this book with other Lewis fans.

The club is currently up to chapter eight out of fourteen, but since this book is so short and the material was so interesting to me, I decided to read it straight through.

The story begins with our narrator (who, though he is never named, appears to be Lewis himself) wandering around a dreary gray town at sunset. He comes across a group of people waiting at a bus stop and decides to join the queue, if only so that he won’t be alone anymore. When the bus finally comes, it whisks these lost souls away to a new and strange place, one that is larger, brighter, and feels altogether more real than anywhere else they have ever been. The narrator soon finds out that he and his fellow passengers were in Hell before and have been allowed to take a sort of “holiday” in Heaven. They can even stay in Heaven if they want to; the problem is most of them don’t want to. Between their misguided loves, their cynicism, and, most of all, their selfishness, it takes nothing short of a miracle to get these people into Heaven for good. Continue reading “Book Review: The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis”

Bookish Links — June 2018

Man on a Bus by Alex Iby.
  • Joy Clarkson, of the podcast Speaking with Joy, is running an online book club for C. S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce! We’re five chapters in already, but the chapters are short so there’s time to catch up. More info here.
  • “In his oeuvre, ecstatic tones mixed with sober reflection; there was no easy way to classify this poetry—it burst taxonomies. It was not ‘nature poetry,’ it was not a ‘poetic meditation on History,’ neither was it ‘autobiographical lyric’—it was all of those. The ambition of this poet knew no limits; he tried to drink in the cosmos”: Adam Zagajewski on discovering Czesław Miłosz’s banned poetry as a young man in Poland, and why he “can’t write a memoir of Czesław Miłosz.”

“The Bowl-Maker” by C. P. Cavafy

On this wine-bowl—beaten from the purest silver,
made for Herakleides’ white-walled home
where everything declares his perfect taste—
I’ve placed a flowering olive and a river,
and at its heart, a beautiful young man
who will let the water cool his naked foot
forever. O memory: I prayed to you
that I might make his face just as it was.
What a labour that has turned out to be.
He fell in Lydia fifteen years ago.

[Translated by Don Paterson]

This is a krater. Yes, it’s tin and bronze instead of silver. But it’s beautiful, isn’t it?

For those unfamiliar with him, C. P. Cavafy (born Konstantinos Petrou Kavafis) was a Greek poet who lived from 1863 to 1933. Despite spending most of his life in Egypt, Cavafy was fascinated by his family’s homeland and his poems are filled with influences from Greek history, mythology, and culture. This particular poem describes an imagined scene from ancient Greece of a silversmith hard at work on a new krater, a type of vessel for mixing wine with water.

It’s important to understand how personal this piece of work is for the silversmith. Herakleides may have requested a scene of a young man sitting next to a river, but it seems unlikely that he would ask for a portrait of the smith’s friend specifically. After all, Herakleides is upper class and this silversmith is just a hired craftsman. They travel in different circles, which means that he likely never even met the young man. In that case, it was the silversmith himself who decided to put the man’s portrait on the bowl.

So, if the task is simply to carve a picture of young man, why did he choose to carve this young man? Obviously, a person likes to keep pictures of the people they love, just to remember them by. But I think there is another reason why he might have decided to do this, one that has to do with the deeper ideas underlying this poem. Continue reading ““The Bowl-Maker” by C. P. Cavafy”

Six Poems about Fathers That Aren’t Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays”

Disclosure: this post contains affiliate links.

Before I say anything else, let me make it clear that this post’s headline does NOT mean that I think there is anything wrong with “Those Winter Sundays.” On the contrary, Hayden was a genius and that poem is one of the greats. And because it’s so great, it’s starting to become over-familiar. For this list, I wanted to branch out into a few less famous poems, and highlight some modern work that I think is interesting along the way. Sounds OK? Good, let’s begin.

1: “A Letter of Recommendation” by Yehuda Amichai

Like “Those Winter Sundays,” this poem sheds a light on a loving but complicated relationship between a father and a son. Amichai’s poetry often points toward a sort of strained relationship—not necessarily with his father himself but certainly with the beliefs his father gave him and the culture he brought him up in. But in this poem, all of those differences give way to a tenderness that is just as much a part of the son as the Ten Commandments he learned as a child, so ingrained in him now that he can’t help repeating them “like an old tune someone hums to himself.” Continue reading “Six Poems about Fathers That Aren’t Robert Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays””

Bookish Links — May 2018

Image by Kate Ilina.
  • “In Brodsky’s view, politics was one level of human existence, but it was a low rung. The business of poetry, he thought, is to ‘indicate something more … the size of the whole ladder.’ He held that ‘art is not a better, but an alternative existence … not an attempt to escape reality but the opposite, an attempt to animate it.'”: from The Point, an essay on the great Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, and his “moral responsibility to be useless.”