Favorite Books of 2017

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As we near the end of 2017, I thought I’d take this Wednesday to look back over a few of the books that I especially loved this year. Just like last year, I’ll be choosing one work from each of the four main genres.

Favorite Fiction

This year’s big fiction project was Anna Karenina, and though I’ve enjoyed it immensely, since I’m picking favorite books and not best books, I’m going to go with Ivan Turgenev’s First Love . Turgenev lacks Tolstoy’s wordiness and supplies a kind of imaginative lyricism that you don’t get as much of in Anna. You can read my full review of it here.

Favorite Play

I only read one play this year, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, and although it’s one of the saddest books I’ve ever read, I have no problem calling it my favorite play of 2017.

Favorite Nonfiction

Honorable mention must go to Dennis O’Driscoll’s collection of interviews with Seamus Heaney (review here): it’s essential for anyone interested in Heaney’s poetry. In the end, though, my favorite nonfiction book of the year was Andrzej Franaszek’s biography of Czesław Miłosz (review). I love a well-written biography, especially when it’s about one of my favorite writers. As it turns out, Miłosz’s life is pretty fascinating even if you haven’t read his poetry, seeing as he was so unfortunate as to be involved in most of the worst crises of the twentieth century.

Favorite Poetry

This is a tough one: Kaveh Akbar published his first full-length collection Calling a Wolf a Wolf this year, and although I haven’t reviewed it yet, I did read it and it was terrific. I also read a lot of older poetry this year and, in terms of enjoyment and surprise, I think I’m going to have to call Ilya Kaminsky’s Dancing in Odessa my favorite poetry book that I read this year (review). Though he doesn’t shy away from darker themes and material, Kaminsky has this sense of wonder about him, child-like in a way, that (with notable exceptions) you don’t always find in modern poetry.

That’s all for now. Let me know in the comments what your favorite books of 2017 were.

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Bookish Links — November 2017

Photo by Kelli Tungay
  • “When a poem comes, I feel it physically. I feel a burning in my temples and I feel a tightening in my throat. I know it’s very weird. Something is coming that can be a poem and I have to see if I can get it into words”: The BBC interviews Dana Gioia about his work space and how he goes about composing a poem.

Book Review: The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

Year of First Publication: 1944

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2003

Number of Pages: 314

Publisher: Vintage International

Genre: Fiction

Disclosure: this post contains an affiliate link.


The man I am writing about is not famous. It may be that he never will be. It may be that when his life at last comes to an end he will leave no more trace of his sojourn on earth than a stone thrown into a river leaves on the surface of the water. … But it may be that the way of life that he has chosen for himself and the peculiar strength and sweetness of his character may have an ever-growing influence over his fellow men so that, long after his death perhaps, it may be realized that there lived in this age a very remarkable creature. [pg. 3-4]

From The Book Depository.

At the center of this story is a young man named Larry Darrell. Following his service as an airman in the First World War, he returns to his old life as the adopted son of a prosperous Chicago doctor and the fiancé of Isabel Bradley, his childhood friend and one of the most eligible young ladies in the city. American industry is booming and Larry’s friends, particularly Isabel, can’t wait for him to take his place in it. Henry Maturin, a successful stock broker, has even arranged a well-paying job for him in his firm. But Larry isn’t so interested in going to work at the moment. The things he saw and did during the war have left him plagued by questions about life, death, and the universe itself. In order to answer these questions, he plans to lead a life of study and contemplation, to the horror of Isabel and her family, for whom money and status predominate over virtually everything else. After ending his engagement, Larry begins a quest for truth that takes him across the globe and back.

Maugham begins this novel telling us that all of the events and people in it are real, just with the names changed and the dialogue fictionalized. To what extent this is true I do not know, although Maugham does write himself into the cast as the first person narrator through whose eyes we view the entire story. Certain points of the story, and especially of Larry’s life, apparently were drawn from Maugham’s own life as well, such as Larry’s stay in India to seek enlightenment at the feet of the swamis.

The Trouble with Larry

There’s a lot to love about Larry: his generosity, his wit, his love of wisdom. Most of all, I love his refusal to compromise his convictions. I love that he won’t allow himself to be forced into the vain and vapid life that Isabel and others urge him to pursue. That’s what drew me to this book in the first place: the young protagonist who rejects the world’s materialism in exchange for truth which can’t be bought or sold. There’s just one thing that really bothers me about Larry: his story seems too idealized.

For one thing, barring his arguments with Isabel early in the book, Larry encounters almost no external resistance on the path he’s chosen. He has plenty of money stashed in the bank, so he’s not pursuing education under the threat of poverty and hunger, and he has no friends or family to whom he is beholden, so he’s free to spend ten years doing basically whatever he wants. This makes for a nice story, but not an exceptionally powerful or compelling one. I think it would have given Larry’s story more interest if he had had to struggle just a bit more on his “path to salvation.”

Besides that, Maugham takes care to stress throughout the story, in a number of ways, how unlike the rest of the world Larry is. His aloofness, his secrecy, his habit of packing up and leaving with little or no warning—they all serve to tell the reader over and over that Larry is special and not like the dull, greedy, unoriginal people around him. The character of Maugham too is pretty convinced that Larry is a saint who’s going to change the world one day, and he doesn’t mind saying so. All in all, Larry sounds just a little too good to be true. I probably would have enjoyed this book more if he had been treated more like a flesh-and-blood being instead of some kind of mythical creature.

That doesn’t mean that I didn’t enjoy this book, though. In addition to Maugham’s beautiful prose, the rest of his characters are intriguing in their own ways. Isabel, for instance, turns out to be a kind of villain, but one you can still feel for. While Larry is seeking his fulfillment in study and spiritual experience, all Isabel asks is nice clothes and a fashionable home. It becomes apparent almost immediately that she and Larry will never see eye to eye, but that doesn’t mean that she stops loving him, even after she marries Henry Maturin’s son Gray. Eventually, her passion for Larry and her despair at not being with him begin to lead her down a dark road.

Isabel’s uncle Elliot Templeton regularly steals the show as well. Elliot, through whom Maugham meets Isabel, Larry, and the rest of the cast, made his fortune selling art and dedicates his life to being one of the smart set, going to all the right parties, learning and spreading the best gossip, etc. He’s ridiculous enough to be funny, but his vanity masks a very generous and caring spirit.

That’s all for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed my nitpicky thoughts on this novel. Let me know in the comments if you’ve read it, what you thought, and where I went wrong in my critique.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Photo by Autumn Mott.

Hi everyone! Sorry there’s no regular blog post today. Between Thanksgiving preparations and some other projects I’ve been working on, I wasn’t able to get a post done in time. Instead, this is just a quick note to say I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving tomorrow and I am very thankful for all of you. Thanks for reading, commenting on, and sharing my posts. It means a lot to know that people are enoying the things I put out.

Hanna

On Translated Poetry

Thanks to Clarissa Akyroyd for pointing me toward this article from Cordite Poetry Review. It’s a little on the long side, but very good, so definitely check it out if you have the time. In case you don’t, the article deals mainly with the presentation of translated poetry in academia and the biases that prevent critics and academics from taking it seriously. The author, Johannes Göransson, describes academics as having a sort of idealized vision of what a poem should be, one that, to them, precludes the poem’s truly existing in other languages. This mindset, he says, arises from two concerns: first, that of “faithfulness” to the original text, and second, that students and younger poets will lack the necessary background knowledge to understand translated poems in their proper social and historical context.

Of course, there’s no denying that a poem’s form is often significantly changed in the process of translation. (For an idea of how much a poem can change between two languages, read this article by Ann Kjellberg on Joseph Brodsky and the features of the Russian language that make Russian poets so hard to translate.) There will always be rhymes discarded, rhythms flattened, and wordplay that is lost. True, a valiant translator can find ways to preserve the music of the original in another language, but then often the literal meaning is changed. There isn’t really anything that can completely take the place of the original. But does this mean that we have nothing to gain from translations? I don’t think so, for reasons I will explain in a moment.

It’s also true that cultural difference adds another layer of complexity to foreign poetry. Even after the words themselves have been translated, you might still be left with cultural and historical references that lose their significance once they leave their own borders. Even trickier from some readers is trying to get inside the head of a poet whose upbringing, worldview, and system of values may be very different from their own.

In a way, though, that’s the point: we read poetry for many reasons, but one of the most important is so that it can broaden the horizons of our minds, instead of couching us in what is already safe and familiar. There’s “too much world”1 for us to take it all in by ourselves: we need other points of view, as many as we can get, if we want to form a fuller picture of ourselves and of existence. Reading translated poetry gives you that, while also giving you a glimpse into what is common between all people. It sets a people apart while also illuminating the things that transcend culture, creed, ethnicity, race, and time.

It confuses and slightly alarms me that the prejudice against translated poetry would be so strong in academia. More than ever, academics claim to be concerned with diversity, so it’s strange that, when it comes to non-English poetry, some of them will actively discourage diversity. Context and respect for other cultures are important, and as readers, we should want to increase our understanding of the world by learning (even if it’s only a little bit) about the cultures and time periods whose literature we read. But the concern about “improper influence,” as the article calls it, shouldn’t be allowed to suppress the poetry it claims to protect. Otherwise, we say to the rest of the world that only people who are like us have anything worthwhile to say to us. We deny the coherence of human nature in favor of a linguistic tribalism.


1 From “The Separate Notebooks” by Czesław Miłosz, translated by Renata Gorczynski and Robert Hass, Selected Poems: 1931 – 2004 by Czesław Miłosz published by HarperCollins, 2006.

Authors on Authors

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Long, long ago, not long after I started this blog, I published a list of authors  whom my favorite authors had pointed to as influences on their work. It was just lists of names, nothing more than that. So today, I’d like to update and expand upon some of those entries, guided by the words of the writers themselves.

Seamus Heaney

Ted Hughes

The fact of the matter is that the most unexpected and miraculous thing in my life was the arrival in it of poetry itself—as a vocation and an elevation almost. I began as a school teacher in Belfast in 1962. I taught for one year in St. Thomas’s Secondary Intermediate School. I had a good degree in English at Queen’s University and felt that I had some literary possibility, but I had no real confidence. . . . My pseudonym at Queen’s, in the magazines where I published, was Incertus—Latin for uncertain—I was just kicking the ball around the penalty area, not trying to shoot at the goal. Then in 1962 the current began to flow. I remember taking down Ted Hughes’s Lupercal from the shelves of the Belfast public library and opening it at “View of a Pig,” and immediately going off and writing a couple of poems that were Hughes pastiches almost. The first one was called “Tractors”; I remember a line that said “they gargled sadly”—which pleased me a lot at the time. So I sent it out to the Belfast Telegraph—not the greatest literary journal in the world, but even so, it published that poem. And that was of immense importance because I knew no one at the paper, which meant that the thing had been accepted on its own merits, such as they were. [From The Paris Review‘s “Art of Poetry” series.]

On first discovering Gerard Manley Hopkins as a student in Catholic school:

It was a matter of sensation, little ricochets and chain reactions within the nervous system. Like “As tumbled over rim in roundy wells / Stones ring” or “rose-moles all in stipple upon the trout that swim; / Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings.” I once said it was like getting verbal gooseflesh. And, naturally enough, when I wrote my first poems as an undergraduate a few years later, I wrote in Hopkins-speak.

What you encounter in Hopkins’s journals—the claustrophobia and scrupulosity and religious ordering of the mind, the cold-water shaves and the single iron beds, the soutanes and the self-denial—that was the world I was living in when I first read his poems.

So yes, you’re right that it wasn’t simply a matter of the phonetics taking over, it wasn’t just the fireworks in phrases like “shining from shook foil.” It was the fact that the height and depth of Hopkins’s understanding matched my own. [From Stepping Stones: Interviews with Seamus Heaney, pages 37 and 38.]

R. S. Thomas

When I read him first, I enjoyed the self-conscious element in the writing—very artful versification, slight affectation of direction, a touch of Crowe Ransom fastidiousness. But what made him especially attractive was the fact that a potential dandy was being suppressed by a very strict, very frugal censor. And then there was the sheer familiarity of his subject matter in those Welsh hill-farm poems. . . . He got very far as a poet, a loner taking on the universe, a kind of Clint Eastwood of the spirit. Every bit as unsmiling as Clint, but in either case you couldn’t be sure there wasn’t really a wild comedian lurking in there somewhere. [Stepping Stones, pages 112 and 113.]

C. S. Lewis

G. K. Chesterton

It was here [in an army hospital during World War I] that I first read a volume of Chesterton’s essays. I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause” of a very obscure kind, quite overrules our previous tastes when it decides to bring two minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love. I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it. His humor was of the kind which I like best—not “jokes” embedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure) a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humor which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the “bloom” on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton frivolous or “paradoxical” I have to work hard to feel even pity; sympathy is out of the question. [Surprised by Joy, pages 190-191]

Ray Bradbury

Read almost any interview with Ray Bradbury and you’ll probably find at least a dozen mentions of writers whose work he loved. One of his favorite ideas to return to was “the train,” which he described in an interview with The Paris Review in 1976 (republished here):

Bradbury: A conglomerate heap of trash, that’s what I am. But it burns with a high flame. I’ve had my “literary loves,” too. I like to think of myself on a train going across midnight America conversing with my favorite authors, and on that train would be people like George Bernard Shaw, who was interested in everything, interested in the fiction of ideas. He himself on occasion wrote things that could be dubbed “science fiction.” We’d sit up late into the night turning over ideas and saying, “Well, if this is true about women in 1900, what is it going to be in the year 2050?”

Interviewer: Who else would be on that train?

Bradbury: A lot of poets. Hopkins, Frost, Shakespeare. And then writers like Huxley, Steinbeck, Thomas Wolfe.

Interviewer: How has Wolfe helped you?

Bradbury: He was a great romantic. When you’re nineteen, he opens the doors of the world for you. We use certain authors at certain times of our lives, and we may never go back to them again. Wolfe is perfect when you’re nineteen. If you fall in love with Shaw when you’re thirty it’s going to be a lifetime love. And I think that’s true of certain books by Thomas Mann as well. I read Death in Venice when I was twenty, and it’s gotten better every year since. Style is truth. Once you nail down what you want to say about yourself and your fears and your life, then that becomes your style and you go to those writers who can teach you how to use words to fit your truth. I learned from John Steinbeck how to write objectively and yet insert all of the insights without too much extra comment. I learned a hell of a lot from John Collier and Gerald Heard, and I fell madly in love with a number of women writers, especially Eudora Welty and Katherine Anne Porter. I still go back and reread Edith Wharton and Jessamyn WestThe Friendly Persuasion is one of my favorite books of short stories.

Or sometimes, he didn’t need the prompting of an interview to come up with a list of favorite authors. From his essay collection Zen in the Art of Writing:

You have your list of favorite writers; I have mine. Dickens, Twain, Wolfe, Peacock, Shaw, Molière, Jonson, Wycherly, Sam Johnson. Poets: Gerard Manley Hopkins, Dylan Thomas, Pope. … Think of all these names and you think of big or little, but nonetheless important, zests, appetites, hungers. Think of Shakespeare and Melville and you think of thunder, lightning, wind. [“The Joy of Writing,” pages 3-4]

Poets in Translation

While you might already be celebrating Nonfiction November, as a few bloggers are, author and editor Molly Spencer has declared November Translated Poetry Month. As she explained on Twitter, the idea is simply to “Read & share the work of poets who’ve been translated into the language(s) you read. The goal is for all of us to read more widely than if left to our usual tendencies.” So who should you read for Translated Poetry Month? I have a few suggestions.

Yehuda Amichai (Hebrew, 1924 – 2000) – One of Israel’s foremost modern poets, Amichai is concision and understatement together with deep lyricism. Favorites are “Near the Wall of a House,”My Father Was God,” and “A Pity, We Were Such a Good Invention.”

C. P. Cavafy (Greek, 1863 – 1933) – Lively, lucid, passionate. A Greek poet with a fondness for personae and ancient civilizations. Favorites are “Ithaca,” “Craftsman of Wine Bowls,” and “’The rest I’ll speak of to the ones below in Hades.’”

Paul Celan (German, 1920 – 1970) – A Romanian poet writing in German. Though his poems are often very dark, drawing upon his experiences as a Holocaust survivor, they also have a kaleidoscopic beauty to them that’s seldom matched. Favorites are “Line the wordcaves,” “Flower,” “An Eye, Open,” “Threadsuns,” and “Corona.”

Robert Desnos (French, 1900 – 1945) – Known as one of the founders of Surrealism, Desnos alternates between funny and breathtakingly beautiful. Favorites of his include “The Landscape” (a “version” by Scottish poet Don Paterson), “Like a Hand at the Moment of Death,” and “The Pelican.”

Czesław Miłosz (Polish, 1911 – 2004) – Of course. He’s one of my favorite poets, translated or not. Some especially good poems of his are “Winter,”A Song on the End of the World,” “Veni Creator,” “Esse,” and “The Separate Notebooks” (a very long poem; there’s an excerpt of it here and more here).

Rainer Maria Rilke (German, 1875 – 1926) – A veritable poetry god, and very mystical; read “The Panther,” Sonnets to Orpheus, and “The Archaic Torso of Apollo.”

Anna Swir (a.k.a. Anna Świrszczyńska) (Polish, 1909 – 1984) – Underrated in her own day and overshadowed in ours, Anna Swir was writing about specifically feminine experiences long before such writing was common. Her poems tend to be short and understated, but with tremendous power behind them. Try “The Greatest Love,” “Thank You, My Fate,” “I Wash the Shirt,” and “There Is Light in Me.”

Adam Zagajewski (Polish, 1945 – ) – Sort of a mystic; being a student of Miłosz, he sees spiritual depth in practically everything. Favorites are “Autumn,” “Mysticism for Beginners,“Do Not Allow the Lucid Moment to Dissolve,” and “Try to Praise the Mutilated World.”

Have you read any of these poets? Which translated poets do you recommend? Let me know in the comments.

Bookish Links — October 2017

Image by Daniela Cuevas via Unsplash.
  • By now, you’ve probably heard about Jill Bialosky’s memoir Poetry Will Save Your Life, for which she “borrowed” paragraphs from several other sources. By far, the best take on this whole debacle has come from Talya Zax at Forward. (HT: A. M. Juster)

 

Fall Library Sale

It’s that time of year again! Our local library recently had its semi-annual used book sale. Usually, I’ll pick up ten or twelve books at these things—this time, I got 27.

Anyhow . . .

A quick disclaimer: the links to the Book Depository are affiliate links. The Amazon links, however, are not. A few of these books are very rare and out of print, so they don’t have links at all.

Fiction

Affinities: a Short Story Anthology edited by John Tytell and Harold Jaffe – Plenty of good names on this table of contents: Turgenev, Kafka, Chekhov, Poe, Anaïs Nin. Really, it was Chekhov who sold it to me. (See my last post.)

The Bad Beginning and The Vile Village by Lemony Snicket – A friend recommended the Series of Unfortunate Events long ago and assured me that it doesn’t really matter what order you read the books in. Since then, I’ve been snapping them up at sales whenever I find them.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope – Suzannah from Vintage Novels loves Trollope, and recommended this novel in particular. It’s the second in Trollope’s “Chronicles of Barsetshire” series, each installment of which deals with a different town in Barsetshire and a different minister in each of those towns.

It’s got a pretty gold foil cover, but the illustrations are vaguely reminiscent of Curious George.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien – Despite both my enthusiasm for the Inklings and Tolkien’s making semi-regular appearances in my Bookish Links posts, I have yet to read an entire Tolkien novel from start to finish. Here’s hoping that changes soon.

Gone Girl by Gillan Flynn – Michael from Lessons from the Screenplay made this story sound really, really interesting.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – The film is a favorite of mine. The book, I’ve been told, is much different from the movie and I’d like to know how.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding – Mostly, I just want to be able to understand all of the references that other books and movies make to this novel.

Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles, and Tales edited and translated by Serge A. Zenkovsky – In spite of its rather alarming cover, I was happy to find this. I’m curious to see what these stories are like, since what little medieval literature I’ve read has come almost entirely from the British isles.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham – This novel was the basis for another favorite movie of mine, the 1946 adaptation with Tyrone Power and Gene Tierney. I’ve actually started to read this one already. Hopefully, there will be a review before too long.

Nonfiction

50 Essays: a Portable Anthology, Second Edition edited by Samuel Cohen – As with Affinities, a few of the names in this collection especially caught my eye: Richard Rodriguez, Frederick Douglass, James Baldwin, Annie Dillard—all authors I either love already or am keen to try.

Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt – This very famous memoir recounts the author’s childhood in 1940s Ireland, where he grew up in a desperately poor family with an alcoholic father. This one will probably make an appearance on the blog next March for Reading Ireland Month.

The Art of Shakespeare’s Sonnets by Helen Vendler – Of course, Helen Vendler is one of the most famous and most widely-respected literary critics in the world, but for some reason, I’ve never gotten around to reading any of her books. This looks like a good place to start.

Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-Three of the World’s Best Poems by Camille Paglia – I read an excerpt of this book here and decided to keep an eye out for it. I’ve read a few chapters so far, and while they haven’t been as mind-blowing as I hoped (I came up with most of her points about Donne’s “Holy Sonnet XIV” by myself), she does offer some intriguing perspectives.

Collins Roberts French-English English-French Dictionary by Beryl T. Atkins, Alain Duval, and Rosemary C. Milne (et al.) – Up until now, I’ve gotten by with the small Merriam-Webster dictionary I bought for high school, though it happens every now and then that I find a word in a French text that it doesn’t include. This dictionary, on the other hand, is far more extensive.

Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe, edited by W. Grinton Berry – A sixteenth-century British minister’s famous account of the history of Christian persecution. I’ve already read some of it from Project Gutenberg, but it’s nice to have a hard copy too.

I and Thou by Martin Buber, tr. by Ronald Gregor Smith – I’m cautiously beginning to enter the field of philosophy. I bought this book because it has been referenced more than once in some of my other reading.

Latin: an Introductory Course Based on Ancient Authors by Frederic M. Wheelock – As a student of French, I’ve often thought that some knowledge of Latin might be helpful. Wheelock (I’ve been told) is the expert for books on learning Latin.

Marina Tsvetaeva: Author by Tom Vtoroy – A Russian language biography of the great Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. I can’t really read much Russian yet, but it looked interesting, and it could be an example of Russian text to measure my reading skills against later. After Googling the name on the little tag on the back, I found out that this book apparently came from Beryozka, Soviet Russia’s state-run department store. My sister says the cover is probably full of microfilm. We shall see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Paris Review Interviews Volume I – Mere days after I learned the heartbreaking news that The Paris Review has put all of their interviews behind a paywall, I found this book. It collects sixteen interviews from across the history of The Paris Review, none of which I got the chance to read while they were free.

Promenades Littéraires et Grammaticales by Renée Waldinger and Gisèle Corbière-Gille – For practicing French!

Secrets in the Dark: a Life in Sermons by Frederick Buechner – A couple of other bloggers (Christopher and Ethan) piqued my interest in this particular writer. Buechner is a Presbyterian minister and author who’s writing deals especially with the concepts of faith, doubt, and imagination.

The Shaker Cook Book: Not by Bread Alone by Caroline B. Piercy – This book apparently was part of a series of cookbooks focusing on the cuisines of different cultures. There was a Polish cookbook, an Israeli cookbook, a Chinese cookbook, and this Shaker cookbook that I picked up for I don’t really know what reason. I doubt if I’ll ever cook anything in it, but it looked interesting nevertheless.

Poetry

Le Livre d’Or de la Poésie Française Contemporaine by Pierre Seghers – A book of contemporary French poetry, published in the 1960s. I think it will be good French reading practice, mais non?

Songs of Innocence by William Blake – An interesting little edition printed in the 1970s with all of Blake’s original illustrations included. It’s pretty and strange.

To Urania by Joseph Brodsky – These sales almost never have any translated books, let alone translated poetry. I’ve been quite interested in Brodsky’s work lately, so I was excited to find this buried in a stack of Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain.

With Cat for Comforter by Ray Bradbury – This book is a longish illustrated poem about cats. It’s also a Ray Bradbury book that I didn’t have, and had never even heard of before. The Bradbury completist in me wanted it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Do let me know in the comments if you’ve read any of these books and what you thought about them!

Book Review: The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories by Anton Chekhov

Translator: Constance Garnett

Original Language: Russian

Year of First Publication: 1917

Year of Publication for This Edition: 2004

Number of Pages: N/A

Publisher: Project Gutenberg

Genre: Fiction


A few weeks ago, I read my first Chekhov play, Uncle Vanya. I liked it so much, that I decided to read some of Chekhov’s short stories as well, beginning with the Project Gutenberg edition of The Lady with the Dog and Other Stories.

I never know how to write about collections like this where there’s not much of a common theme, so instead, I’ll write about each story individually.

“The Lady with the Dog”

One of Chekhov’s most famous stories, it concerns a banker who feels trapped in his middle-class Moscow existence. While on a trip to the resort town of Yalta, he meets a young woman who is equally unhappy in her recent marriage. The two begin an affair that, despite their promises otherwise, never really ends, and the story closes on the two of them in a hotel in Moscow desperately trying to think up a way for them to be together. It’s a stroke of genius on Chekhov’s part, leaving us hanging with the fulfillment of our expectations indefinitely deferred, similar to the predicament of his two protagonists. Combine that with the gift Chekhov has for mapping the interior space of his characters, and you have yourself a fabulous story.

“A Doctor’s Visit”

A very socially conscious Chekhov tells us a story about a physician who is called to tend to the daughter of a rich factory owner. Upon visiting the factory, just next door to the owner’s home, the doctor is appalled by the conditions in which the laborers are forced to live and work. He sees the daughter’s physical illness as a reaction to the moral and spiritual degradation around her. Preachy? Maybe a little.

“An Upheaval”

A day in the life of a household struggling to cope with its controlling, eternally-suspicious matriarch. It’s one of the shortest stories in the book, and yet in that tiny space, the husband’s desperation and the tension of the whole house become palpable.

“Ionich”

Dmitri Ionich Startsev is young doctor who has set up a practice in a small town. He befriends the delightfully ridiculous Turkin family, and falls in love with their daughter, Yekaterina Ivanova (Kitten for short). He would marry Kitten, but she intends to study music and doesn’t want to be tied down to a house and family. Instead of moving on, Startsev lets Kitten’s rejection turn him bitter until he’s incapable of loving anyone or anything. It’s a very simple plot, but still moving, with excellent characters

“The Head of the Family”

Basically “An Upheaval,” but with the gender reversed: this time, it’s a father who terrorizes his family with constant outbursts of temper, then cannot understand why they’re all so afraid of him. It gets even sadder when you find out that the character was probably modeled after Chekhov’s own father.

“The Black Monk”

Another very famous story, about a monomaniacal philosopher’s slow descent into madness. This story made the book for me. It’s so beautifully done, so vivid (especially that ending!), and so delicately walks the line between realism and fantasy. It’s my favorite in the collection.

“Volodya”

Reading this after Turgenev’s First Love was a little bit of déjà vu, and not just because the protagonists have the same first name: a teenage boy falls in love with an older (and in this case, married) woman and her rejection sends his life into a tailspin. While I didn’t exactly “enjoy” the story, it was interesting to see how quickly Chekhov could take his reader from sympathizing with the main character to recognizing him for the petty, self-centered child he really is.

“An Anonymous Story”

This is a long one: a young man named Vladimir goes to work as a valet for a man called Georgy Orlov. Orlov is in a relationship with a married woman named Zinaïda Fyodorovna, but only stays with her because he finds her physically attractive. One day, Orlov is shocked to find that Zinaïda has left her husband and wants to move in with him. He does everything he can to make Zinaïda feel unwelcome, and when that doesn’t get rid of her, he begins lying to her, telling her that he’s going on business trips when he really intends to spend the week at his friend’s house across town. As his valet, Vladimir becomes an accomplice in these deceptions, a job he hates doing because, while Orlov was trying to get rid of Zinaïda, Vladimir was falling in love with her.

This ended up being my least favorite story in the book. For one thing, the character of Vladimir is a little odd. When we first meet him, he’s a member of a radical political organization. His whole reason for taking the valet job in the first place was so that he could get closer to Orlov’s father—a prominent politician whom Vladimir’s group opposes—and learn things about him that could later be used to blackmail him. That all seemed a little contrived to me, and the references to Vladimir’s association with that group felt like a distraction from the real story, his relationship with Zinaïda. The second thing that bothered me was the tone of the story overall. Like all of the other stories in this book, “An Anonymous Story” ends sadly; unlike the other stories in the book, it seemed Chekhov was working extra hard here to make you pity his main characters. It just felt too forced and sentimental over all.

“The Husband”

Ah yes, the good old Russian trope of the bitter old man who feels that he is unworthy of happiness, and therefore tries to destroy it every chance he gets. As a character study, I think it’s one of the stronger stories in the collection: very simple and straightforward, but still compelling and real.

That’s all for today. If you have any other recommendations for short story collections, Russian or not, leave them in the comments below.

Thoughts on the Nobel Prize

The winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature is going to be announced tomorrow. I know not everyone is interested in or cares about literary prizes, but I for one find it interesting to see the implications they have both on the literary world and the world at large. For one thing, a well-known and prestigious prize like this one can lift an underappreciated writer out of obscurity. That was the case in 1980, when the Nobel was awarded to Czesław Miłosz, who, at that time, had been erased from Polish literature by the Soviet authorities and had not found an audience anywhere outside of Poland. Other times, by elevating a particular author, the prize also draws attention to important social concerns. In 2000, for instance, the prize was awarded to the Chinese novelist Gao Xingjian, who, from the very beginning of his career, had struggled against the Chinese government’s strict censorship. This, of course, helped highlight human rights issues in China, especially where freedom of speech and freedom of the press are concerned.

Of the names that are mostly frequently mentioned as possible future Nobel Laureates, there are three whom I especially would like to see win. And yes, they’re all poets.

Adonis

For years now, Adonis (pen name of Ali Ahmad Said Esber) has been a favorite of Nobel speculators, and for good reason: his work is absolutely stunning and he greatly deserves such an honor. In addition to that, I think he would also make good use of the platform that the Nobel would give him. Though he now lives in France, Adonis is originally from Syria and has written extensively about Arab culture. He’s especially outspoken about the oppressive nature of the theocratic regimes that dominate much of the Middle East today. Of course, Adonis isn’t exactly an obscure writer now, but a Nobel might help to increase his visibility even more outside of the worlds of French and Middle Eastern literature.

Adam Zagajewski

Zagajewski is, of course, one of my favorite living poets. He has his detractors, but I personally find his work captivating and beautiful, for reasons that I partly outlined in this post.

Don Paterson

The betting site Ladbrokes gives Paterson 100/1 odds. It’s not very likely, but I would be happy if it was. Though Paterson and I might not always see eye to eye on a philosophical level, there’s no denying that he is an absolute master of his craft. Few, I think, can match the ease of his style and the subtle musicality of his language.


Image of Adam Zagajewski (left) by Frankie Fouganthin and licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. (Source)
Image of Adonis (center) by Bahget Iskander. (Source)
Image of Don Paterson by Freddie Phillips and licensed under CC BY 2.0. (Source)

Bookish Links — September 2017

Image by Florian Klauer.