books: 29 posts

Fall Reading : Odyssey, Celestial Bodies and Obsessions

Autumn can be described as “golden,” “melancholy” or “rainy,” but I like the Japanese epithet of autumn as “the season for reading,” dokusho no aki. There is something particularly inviting about the image of sitting down with a book and a steaming cup of tea on a rainy day. Or I like to take a favorite book of poetry to a park and read a few stanzas as I wade through the fallen leaves. This fall, however, I’ll more likely be reading at train stations and airports as I have several trips lined up. Whatever the circumstances, I made a list of books to read. For the Bois de Jasmin fall reading list, on the other hand, I want to share the books I’ve read and enjoyed. As always, I look forward to your lists and recommendations.

Homer, The Odyssey

I’ve decided to re-read The Odyssey after I finished Mary Beard’s Civilisations: How Do We Look/The Eye of Faith. Beard observes that certain works of literature influenced our culture to such a great extent that we take it for granted. Two of the most important books in the history of Western literature, as well as the oldest, are Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey. I’ve selected The Odyssey, because it was my favorite when I was a student, and the copy we had at home was a French translation by Leconte Lisle circa 1860’s. It’s a translation in prose, but I found it beautiful and suspenseful.

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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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