Last Week’s Reading: February 19-25

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Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders: I confess that this is the first George Saunders book I’ve read, and now I get what all the hype is about. The novel takes place on one night, in the graveyard where young Willie Lincoln’s body has been delivered. His grieving father, faced with the loss of his son and the looming loss of his country (the war is not going well), visits the cemetery, to the surprise of the resident ghosts. Mr. Saunders stretches the form of the novel in unexpected directions, and the result is polyphonous, nuanced, joyful and terrible, and—dare I say it?—Joycean, in a good way. Highly recommended.

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: Everything there is to say about this book, a father’s letter to his son about moving through American life in a black body, has already been said, I think, but: yes, it’s searing, bleak, and galvanizing. And the writing is beautiful. Highly recommended.

Peacock & Vine, by A. S. Byatt: As an object, this book is covetable—gorgeous thick paper, a carefully chosen font, around 50 full-page photos—but I closed it and wished for more. It’s an essay, A. S. Byatt is careful to say, that through various lenses considers the lives and work of the artists Mariano Fortuny and William Morris. I knew a bit about Morris coming into the book, but nothing about textile designer Fortuny, and in both cases I felt out of my depth because of my lack of knowledge. Byatt’s writing is gorgeous, of course—is there a writer who can describe color better?—but I think this book is best suited for people particularly interested in the two designers. Made me want a Fortuny coffee-table book, though.

Look, by Solmaz Sharif: In Look, Ms. Sharif’s debut collection, poetry is an act of witnessing, even when what is witnessed is erasure. These poems focus on the way war destroys or maims the body, relationships, and language itself. A powerful, sad, cohesive collection. Highly recommended.

(The library was good to me this week, as you can see. Wish I’d had time to write longer reviews!)

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Last Week’s Reading: January 29-February 4

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The Constitution of the United States: It seemed like a good time to give this a thorough re-read. Highly recommended.

The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye: Five Fairy Stories, by A. S. Byatt: After I read Possession, I started scooping up Byatt books whenever I ran across one, which is how this one has been on my shelves for two or three years. The first two fairy stories are pulled from Possession, but I was happy to revisit them. “Dragons’ Breath” is a political allegory that I found very uncomfortable to read in the current climate. “The Story of the Eldest Princess” is now in my pantheon of great fairy tales. And the title story–which, at well over 100 pages, is really more a novella–is exactly what I needed: a consuming, sumptuous tale of a strange creature trapped in a bottle, and the scholar who sets him free. A.S. Byatt’s writing is brilliant, in all senses—had her intellect been applied in a different direction, I’m suspect humanity would have colonized Mars or cured cancer decades ago.

Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth, by Warsan Shire: Ms. Shire rose to prominence last year when her work was featured in Beyoncé’s Lemonade (and, in a nice piece of coincidence for this post, it turns out that Ms. Shire wrote a poem for Beyoncé’s pregnancy announcement) Her poem “Home” has also been widely shared, and I suspect, given the events of the last ten days, that it will be making the rounds again soon. Teaching My Mother How to Give Birth is a chapbook-length collection of bruising poems about trauma, sensuality, exile and home, and women’s lives. Recommended. (You can find an earlier post about Warsan Shire here.)

The White Castle, by Orhan Pamuk (translated by Victoria Holbrook): I wanted to love this early novel by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, since his My Name is Red is one of my favorite books, but alas, it was not to be. The premise–in the seventeenth century, a young Italian scholar is taken captive by the Turks and given over to a master who looks exactly like him—is interesting, the writing lovely, the ending masterful. The frame narrative and unreliable narrator are two of my favorite devices and employed remarkably well here, but for me the weight of the psychodrama pulled down the middle, and I found myself wishing the novel were over sooner. Ah well.

Holding Company, by Major Jackson: This 2010 book is the first of Major Jackson’s collections I’ve read, but it won’t be the last. The poems in this collection are ten lines each (with one exception, I think), but there’s such variety among them! Allusive and elusive, lyrical and abstract, personal-political, descriptive: these poems are challenging and a pleasure to read. I’ll be coming back to them.

Unusual Words, A.S. Byatt Edition

This week I was cleaning off my desk, and I came across the notes I took while reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession back in April (yes, it took me more than six months to clean my desk). About halfway through the novel, I started writing down all the rare and delightful words that pop up in the text—and ended up with four pages’ worth. I wonder if A.S. Byatt’s everyday speech is peppered with this kind of unusual vocabulary.

Here are some of my favorites:

  • carapace
  • silex
  • besprent
  • celandine
  • exiguous
  • vulpine
  • recension
  • odylic
  • moquette
  • aperçu
  • hypostatisation

What are your favorite bookish sources for unusual words?

Recommended Reading: The Red Queen, by Margaret Drabble

Since I’ve read two books by A.S. Byatt so far this year, I thought it would be only fair to give one of her sister’s novels a try. Sister, you say? You haven’t heard of another novelist with the last name of Byatt?

The Red Queen

Well, that’s because A.S. Byatt’s non-pen name is Dame Antonia Duffy (she was born Antonia Susan Drabble), and her sister’s name is Margaret Drabble.

Both writers have been laureled and lauded many times over, but they do not see each other often and do not read each other’s novels, the result, apparently, of their rivalry as writers and their disagreement over the portrayal of their mother and the use of the family tea-set in a novel.  It’s a real shame, not only because their novels are so good, but because in all the interviews I’ve read, both women seem like lovely people.

Enough about that. Let’s talk about the book.

The back jacket of The Red Queen claims that it’s “a rich and playful novel about love, about personal and public history, and what it means to be remembered.” Readers may recall my feelings about unattributed jacket copy, and I do think that this is better than most, with one slight problem. “Playful” implies that the novel is funny, or piquant. It is not.

It is, however, excellent. What’s playful about the novel is its structure. In the first part, our narrator is the woman known, inaccurately, she tells us, as Lady Hong, a Korean princess of the eighteenth century. The Korean Crown Princess is known in Korea (less so in the rest of the world) for her memoirs, written for different audiences over a period of some time. The version of the princess that Ms. Drabble presents is an unreliable narrator, to be sure, sometimes blinded by her own interests or those of her family. She drifts into long digressions, circles around issues, leaves out salient details. She’s also dead, knows she’s dead, and has the advantage, with some limitations, of looking over history to fill out her own story. What she wants is to be remembered, to reach a wider audience (she won me over — I have to find those memoirs!).

In the second part of the novel, she succeeds. We switch gears entirely to follow Dr Barbara Halliwell in the present day as she attends an academic conference, makes a friend, and embarks on an affair in Seoul. Throughout her time in Korea, she’s drawn to the tale of the Crown Princess, unsure who gave her the memoirs and what she should be taking away from her visit, her affair, her very life. I’ll stop here, because you know I never offer spoilers. Let’s just say that the story keeps spiraling outward and inward, and the last few pages are a treat, so very clever. It’s a novel I’d be pleased to have on my shelf, and I hope you and A.S. Byatt will read it too.

Recommended Reading: Ragnarok, by A.S. Byatt

I was raised on opera as a child; I couldn’t identify a New Kids on the Block Song (still can’t), but I could pick Wagner out of a lineup every time. So with his Ring Cycle in mind, I was excited to read A.S. Byatt’s take on Ragnarok, or The End of the Gods, especially because I found Possession to be such a wonderful book (and if you read it, you might remember that Ash wrote a poem called “Ragnarok”).

Sorry, library copy.

Sorry, library copy.

Fans of A.S. Byatt will encounter her erudition and her command of language here, with cascading descriptions and lists reminiscent of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The language is so satisfying, so meaty, that this short book (171 pages) takes quite a while to savor.

What impressed me most, in this telling, is the structure of the work. It’s not exactly a novel, but not exactly D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths, either (my favorite book of mythology when I was a child). But there is a narrative flow, and the book opens with “a thin child in wartime” encountering the stories of these irascible, imperfect, impulsive gods and their creations. But these myths, as A.S. Byatt points out in an essay that closes the book, differ greatly from fairy tales; the good do not always prosper, and the bad are not always punished; indeed, Ragnarok is the end of the gods. The world with its gods dies and is not reborn.

The book is not an allegory for the woes of our world, but present in the author’s mind was, she writes, the steady bursts of destruction we inflict on the earth ourselves, without any help from the gods.

Recommended Reading: Possession, by A.S. Byatt

I was about six when this novel first appeared, but otherwise, I’d be berating myself for taking so long to read it.

The plot, in brief: two contemporary (late-’80s) literary scholars try to work out the relationship between two nineteenth-century poets (both invented by Byatt) they study, using letters, stories, poems, and diaries as evidence.

At 550+ pages, Possession is an investment in reading time, but well worth it. The pace of revelations is steady and exciting, and fits the book’s subtitle: A Romance. By this Byatt means, of course, not the plodding soft-core jumbles of paragraphs you might find in a drugstore, but the old genre-specific versions of Romance: the late medieval chivalric tales of Chretien de Troyes, the later prose romances of Sidney and Aphra Behn, the Gothic re-imagining of romance in novels like Jane Eyre. All of the connotations come together in this dense, beautiful novel.

Byatt’s range of vocabulary alone is stunning; in one fifty-page chapter, comprised of letters between Ash and LaMotte, I found twenty or thirty words and foreign phrases that I needed to look up in a dictionary (examples: menhir, congeries, tergiversation).

I was floored by Byatt’s polyphony, by the sheer weight of the references and subtle allusions. I know I’m picking up most of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century allusions since I spent five years in grad school working on that period, but at the same time, I’m know I must be missing many, many nineteenth-century references. The styling of the two poets’ voices is just incredible; it made me want to go back and read all of Emily Dickinson and Browning.

Byatt’s range of vocabulary alone is stunning; in one fifty-page chapter, comprised of letters between Ash and LaMotte, I found twenty or thirty words and foreign phrases that I needed to look up in a dictionary (examples: menhir, congeries, tergiversation).

[By the way: if you’re an academic (or former academic, or on-hiatus academic), you’ll delight in Byatt’s wickedly funny and sometimes achingly sad portraits of professorial types.]

Possession would bear repeated re-readings, but I’m going to try to hold off until I have more of my to-read books off the shelf. Let me know what you think if you’ve read it!