Books: 66 posts

Books and reading lists

Incense and Poetry : Scent Diary

The smoke
Is now making
The first sky of the year.

Issa (1763 – 1828), a Japanese poet, whose name means simply “a cup of tea”

You can write about anything you wish in this thread, including your favorite poetry. For those who would like to use the Scent Diary to sharpen their sense of smell, I will give a short explanation. As I wrote in How to Improve Your Sense of Smell, the best way to do so is to smell and to pay attention to what you’re smelling. It doesn’t matter what you smell. The most important thing is to notice scents around you. It’s even better if you write it down. So please share your scents and perfumes with us.

Photography by Bois de Jasmin

10 Favorite Novels

Last year I made a resolution to read more fiction. Since graduate school, my reading has always gravitated heavily towards memoirs, history, science and poetry, but last summer as I unpacked the boxes of books left at my grandmother’s house after we emigrated to the United States, I began to miss the pleasures of reading novels. When I was a teen, I read them to find different perspectives on life and to discover a variety of experiences that my own situation couldn’t afford. Some might say that it’s a naive approach to a novel, but it kept me enthralled. Later I read novels for the language, the style, the ability of the writer to express ideas in unexpected ways. Last year, I read them for pleasure.

My list below is compiled from a selection of about 70 novels I read last year. I also reverted to a childhood habit of keeping a reading diary, and when I decided to feature 10 favorite books to share with you, deciding on the titles was easy. I didn’t include authors that I’ve already reviewed or mentioned on these pages, such as Barbara Pym, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Yukio Mishima, Margaret Atwood, or Danilo Kiš. The remaining 10 novels–including one play and two short stories–gave me many hours of thrill and emotion, and I hope they will likewise become loyal companions to you.

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How Books Smell : My New Christmas Themed Article in Oh Comely Magazine

This month I have an article titled How Books Smell in the mid-winter issue of Oh Comely. Oh Comely is a magazine covering food, recipes, film, fashion, music, art and culture. It’s based in the UK and you can subscribe or buy any of its six yearly issues online at the Oh Comely store, or in shops all over the UK and internationally (here is the stocklist). It’s an independent magazine with a creative and refreshing approach to art, culture and lifestyle topics, and I think that many of those who read Bois de Jasmin will enjoy it too. Its latest issues included stories on poignant prose, Victorian women, dressing like your favorite literary heroine, and the art of keeping secrets.

My article is on the topic that’s close to my heart–books and scents. I explore the sensory pleasures of reading and explain how I enhance it by visualizing scents in my favorite books. The two authors who guide me are Marcel Proust and Nikolai Gogol. The article also features incense inflected hawthorns, moon-stealing devils, Christmas revelry, and saffron brandy. I hope that you will like it.

The cover of Oh Comely 2017 winter issue.

10 Books to Read About the Russian Revolution

My great-grandfather was a Bolshevik. Although he was too young to have participated in the events of the Revolution of 1917, he joined grass-roots Communist groups to spread literacy–and the word of Lenin. He was the first in his family to earn a university degree, and until his retirement he worked as a school teacher in central Ukraine. On the day marking the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, November 7th, he donned the military honors he received during WWII and joined the parade.

Growing up in the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was a part, I took the parades and processions for granted. I didn’t like them, because they felt perfunctory and empty of any meaning, but I participated, because refusing wasn’t an option. The older I got, the more I detested the slogans and the marches. “What did this revolution of yours achieve?” I would say to my great-grandfather whenever our discussions erupted into arguments. “Endless parades and endless lines?” The 1980s were a time of endemic shortages, when even basic goods like toilet paper disappeared from store shelves. When that happened, without a trace of irony we cut up the old issues of Pravda, the main Party newspaper whose name meant “Truth.” My great-grandfather was the only one who used it for its original intended purpose–reading the news.

Yet, for all his ardent belief in the revolution, my great-grandfather never romanticized it. I’m sure he would find the contemporary left’s nostalgia for a time they never experienced as deeply baffling. He might have thought that it was necessary to remove the corrupt, despotic tsarist system, but he recognized the tragedies it unleashed, especially the Civil War during which my great-grandfather lost much of his family. He was a believer and an idealist, but he wasn’t blind to the fact that the Red Revolution was followed by the Red Terror.

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Japanese Ghost Stories : 5 Books

Frightening oneself with ghost stories or haunted houses is a summer activity in Japan for the chilling frisson it’s believed to provide. Yet the Japanese literary tradition filled with spirits, ghouls, specters and other supernatural phenomena is so rich that a full year wouldn’t be enough to even scrape the surface. Since dark fall evenings are a good time to delve into it, I decided to share five of my favorite Japanese books over whose pages hover ghosts.

The Japanese concept of a ghost, yūrei, is quite complex, but in its essence, it’s a soul of someone who died in a violent manner and may not have had proper funeral rites. The soul then returns to the living world to seek vengeance and to torment those who were responsible for the crime. The purpose of Japanese ghost stories, however, is not only to paint the frightful deeds of the unpacified souls, but also to examine the complexity of love, betrayal, loyalty, faith, and other human emotions and dilemmas.

Japanese Gothic Tales by Izumi Kyoka, translated by Charles Shiro Inouye

“She seemed too delicate for someone living in the mountains. Even in the capital you don’t see many women as beautiful. As she rubbed my back. I could hear her trying to stifle the sounds of her breathing. I knew I should ask her to stop, but I became lost in the bliss of the moment. Was it the spirit of the deep mountains that made me allow her to continue? Or was it her fragrance? I smelled something wonderful. Perhaps it was the woman’s breath coming from behind me.”

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