Reading my way to the New Year

So, break has allowed some time for reading.  Hurrah!

First, I finally read Another Country by James Baldwin. That was an important book for me to read (particularly while I was in the process of writing my 75-page term paper circling why I write and what I struggle with). Baldwin makes a beautiful story out of completely dramatic, internal circumstances — he seems to have written exactly the book he wanted to write, choosing his issues, building them into every character, ignoring in large part the things that would have kept me from writing a like this*, namely the consideration of how dramatic everything is, how prone to soap opera-ization it all seems, and how the details of Baldwin’s own life are reflected throughout the book in ways that probably raised questions for his contemporaries.

All of which is me saying: this was a bold and beautiful book, and I enjoyed it. It was so nicely crafted that I put it down about half way through, because I was so certain it was headed for terrible, heart-breaking territory and I’d become so engaged with the characters. But it discusses art and love and sex and gender and sexuality and race in tumbling, confusing, whirling, and somehow believable, human ways. It draws no real conclusions except that everything is flexible. It’s just… a great book. I’ll muse on it much more (and particularly on its use of point-of-view) this year as I work on my own project.

I next read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. Let me try and separate this from the ugly reaction I’ve been having to the marketing of The Kite Runner as a movie. This was… OK. Some of it was wonderful — he created two women as his point-of-view characters with real grace and emotion. What the book lacked for me was, in those characters, nuance — they both only wanted the same thing from their lives (twu wuv), and they were stopped at every possible turn by the same thing: Afghanistan. It felt like a book that was really about the political turmoil of the last 50 years in Afghanistan, told through the point-of-views of these women — a fine setup for a book, but to work, for me, a book needs to be about its characters. Hosseini throws every possible piece of convenient, terrible luck possible at these two women. While I believe completely that every horrible thing that happens to them is something that has happened to thousands, millions, even, of Afghan women, the fact that these bad things happen to them at precisely the moments when they have the most hope, the moments when they are most convenient for the movement of the story — it gets predictable and tiring. By the end, I had no real investment in either main character because the hand of the author was so obvious. The writing was, at times, very beautiful in descriptions of the place and time and circumstance, though, so I did read the whole thing. (It worries me that many readers probably take both of Hosseini’s books not as fiction but as essays about Afghani life, but that’s probably something the author should be congratulated on).

I moved from Hosseini to Michael Chabon, which would seem to be a strange move but, in this case, worked well: Gentlemen of the Road is a short book that was first serialized in some magazine (The New Yorker? The NYT Magazine?). It’s fun, it’s strange, it’s totally Chabon: a new world created, new rules in play, and fast-paced word games and dialogue and heroes everywhere. Not his best (one big “twist” was obvious up front) but a good read for a snowy day.

I next tried to read The Age of Shiva, which I have an advanced reader’s copy of thanks to Library Thing. Probably a poor choice after A Thousand Splendid Suns, because it’s a similar formula: man writing from a woman’s point of view, trying to tell the story of a country and a character and favoring one over the other. But this book doesn’t hold together even half as well as Hosseini’s, because the woman created here makes no sense: while the world is what ruins the lives of Hosseini’s women, Suri’s main character sabotages herself at every turn, a perfect employee of the author. For instance, after being told explicitly by her father that a certain action will result in his withholding money meant to help her and her husband escape a life she hates, money she has asked for and has been dreaming about, she carries through with the action anyway, for no apparent reason or gain except that it allows the author to show her suffering. The author even has the character explicitly think about how her actions never make sense to her. Unless the book is heading toward mental illness along the lines of multiple personalities, I can’t buy it, and I haven’t made it past the halfway point yet.

Right now, I’m in the middle of Anna Karenina, as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. As part of the Chekhov seminar I took last year, I read some of their translations of his short stories, and found them to be consistently both easy-to-read and artfully translated, as opposed to the standard (Garnett) translations. So when the same professor recommended reading their translation of AK, and when I happened to find that translation on the shelf of the Hutchinson Public Library, I jumped at it. And I have found it, so far, to be quite engaging and interesting… and will now scurry off to return to it.  Go Vronsky!  What?

* Not that I could write a book like this, in scope, detail, lyricism, or any of that. I am not James Baldwin and do not claim his skill.

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