books: 23 posts

Mary Beard on How We Look at Art

If ancient Greeks were transported to the rural Ukraine of the 21st century, they would have been surprised to see elements of their designs used with a liberal hand. A faux Greek portico attached to a housing unit meant “a cultural institution” to Soviet planners. Many mini-Parthenons dot the bucolic landscapes, the so-called Houses of Culture that once disseminated the light of the Marxist credo and hosted weekly village dances and now shelter shops and offices, capitalist style. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 rejected much about the old order–the language, the traditions, the customs, the family allegiances, but such was the power of classical art that the Soviet style became defined by it. Culture had to come with Doric columns in tow.

Mary Beard’s book Civilisations: How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith (public library) is about the way we look at art and the notions we have about it. A renowned historian of the ancient world looks at the way people throughout history thought of art and expressed their ideas of themselves by both creating it and interacting with it. The Soviet example is a good illustration for Beard’s idea of art as used to inscribe certain values and principles into the landscape and into daily life.

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Days of Reading

Two weeks ago, talking about an essay by Marcel Proust, I wrote about the place that the word “reading” evokes for me. Finding myself in this very spot, I wanted to share it with you. It’s located near Poltava, one of the oldest towns in Ukraine, although our garden is far enough from the bustle of the town. The apricot tree I mentioned has long been gone, as have the people who planted the garden, my great-grandparents, but the cherry orchard, the hammock, the thicket of jasmine are still there. And so I am with my book.

I spread the blanket under the bush we call “the nightingale’s tree.” It grows tall fronds covered with fuzzy, honey-smelling white blossoms. The cherries are still green, but it’s still early, it’s still spring, and I don’t rush headlong into summer.

My book today is Vivre Dans Le Feu: Confessions (Living in the Fire: Confessions) by Marina Tsvetaeva. It’s a compilation of the poet’s letters and diaries made and commented by the late Tsvetan Todorov. In English, I recommend a similar compilation, but spanning only the years between 1917 and 1922, Earthly Signs, recently translated and edited by the New York Review of Books. On the other hand, if you’re new to Tsvetaeva’s poetry, I would suggest starting with her magnificent The Poem of the EndThe Poem of the Mountain, and The Ratcatcher.

Perhaps, I’ve asked you this already, but if not, where do you like reading?

Marcel Proust on Reading and Recapturing Time

If you were to give me the word ‘reading’ and ask me to describe the first thing that it evokes, I’d describe a secluded corner in my grandmother’s garden where an old apricot tree cleaved in two by a bolt of lightning grew a wild canopy and made for a perfect hideaway. I would spend hours reading under the apricot tree’s branches, occasionally reaching for a fuzzy, under-ripe fruit. In my memory it’s not the individual books themselves that stand out, but rather the pleasure of reading and the emotions it inspired. And the sour almond taste of green apricots.

Marcel Proust conceived Journées de Lecture, Days of Reading (public library), as an introduction to his translation of John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies. Proust had not yet written his novel, but his discovery of the famous Victorian art critic’s work was a major milestone, and in the introductory essay one can already detect the makings of the writer of Remembrance of Things Past. For all of Proust’s admiration of Ruskin, he disagrees with the critic’s statement that books are a conversation with the sages. Instead, Proust finds the pleasure of reading in the way books prompt us to look for answers to life’s riddles on our own. Art is not didactic. It is stimulating. It doesn’t instruct. It inspires.

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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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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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