said and read

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My goal, as stated, was to read 26 non-English-language books in 2018. I am on track, but I didn’t really intend to keep reading other books like a total fiend.  I suppose it’s like when you avoid something over which you have no self-control. (My grandmother might have called this lamentable lack of discipline ‘a potato-chip effect’. She could entirely avoid potato chips, but if she ate just one, she was not able to stop. Then again, my grandmother would also have found this kind of obsessive reading to be intoxicating and its own form of discipline, so I doubt she would have faulted me for it. Books are not, after all, potato chips.)

For nearly a decade I didn’t read much of anything. But crack open a book (or a screen in the case of an e-reader), and I’m done. You can’t pry me away from it. That’s not to say I don’t do anything else. It’s just that I never go anywhere without the Kindle. Every spare moment waiting or riding a train or plane or lying in bed trying to fall asleep is occupied with reading.

To achieve my actual goal I need to read two non-English-language books per month, and I am well into the second of the two. But I guess there must be about 18 other (English-language) books on the go at the same time. I really didn’t anticipate this.

And my one unequivocal recommendation is Masha Gessen’s The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. Sure, you kind of have to be interested in Russia, Russian history and non-fiction for this to appeal to you (although she has used several people’s journeys as ways into the story, making it feel more visceral and urgent than a lot of fiction). Several other books have been noteworthy: Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Bohumil Hrabal)… because it’s Hrabal. There’s no way to explain why it’s good or worth your time (and it might not be if this style doesn’t appeal to you); The Best We Could Do (Thi Bui), which is not my normal style. I don’t care for graphic/illustrated novels (this is more an autobio than a novel), but this was a moving exception. If you have interest in Vietnam, the refugees who left Vietnam after the long conflict and the way these people adapted in their new surroundings and how their children then adapted, this is a fresh and deeply humanizing take on a familiar story (familiar, perhaps, in a firsthand way to Vietnamese and American people at least).

So far I have not read anything I considered truly bad, but there were a few repetitive time wasters (e.g. a handful of books by comedian Frankie Boyle – not time-wasting per se… more just semi-lazy rehashing of his comedy material mixed with some semi-thoughtful left-wing opinions, and the inane autobio of Lauren Graham, whom I dislike anyway, so I can’t explain why I read it. It may just be an extension of my “hate watching” of certain TV shows, notably and related in this case, Gilmore Girls and Parenthood). It could be that I read these because they were readily available as e-books from the library. Yeah, sometimes this potent mix of lukewarm curiosity and convenience/availability will do it. Not just when it comes to books.

1999

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A trove of notes from the summer of 1999 – the past, while so well-illuminated feels like a part of a long and long ago night.

Summer begins, and I’m traveling around in Hawaii (Maui) and then all over Europe, accompanied by what appears to have been everything Nadine Gordimer had published at that time. The sounds of the Red Hot Chili Peppers followed/haunted me everywhere in the world I went. A Spanish guy who spoke no English tried to seduce me in Prague; an Australian tour guide named ‘Mat’ kept referring to every few-hours-stop in one city (without an overnight stay) as a “city lick”, which struck me as obscene; Budapest was enveloped in a massive thunder and lightning storm; Munich was unimpressive; I remember very little of Vienna other than the oppressive heat and a seemingly bipolar Australian girl; my hatred for Italy was born, as I lost my wallet and subsisted on the bits of various currency I had on hand for the various destinations (pre-euro days) I hit after Italy, although my time in Rome was made softer by meeting an American airline crew stuck there overnight; Luzern, my only stop in Switzerland, was civilized and orderly, as you would expect; I told a man in Nice that he had a piece of paper stuck in his hair; on a sweltering Friday night in Barcelona, John F Kennedy Jr’s private plane went missing; hellish times with hellish people in Madrid; a man came up to me in Tours and started saying something, which startled me, which caused him to ask if I understood French, to which I replied “un peu” – in English, he continued, “You are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen.” I said, “Thank you.” He replied, “No, thank you” as he placed his hand to heart dramatically and kept walking. Hahahaha. So French of him.

There are other bits that I noted nothing about, which I found less than impressive – London, Amsterdam, Monaco. But I fell in love with Berlin then but still have nothing to say about it.

After all of this I ended in Iceland, where I spent several weeks and knew I wanted to stay there. At the time, I thought forever. But it only ended up being about 8-9 years. Only. En route to and from Reykjavik I had to stop at Oslo Gardermoen, which was then new, and seemed so strange. Now it’s my “airport of choice”, like it or not, but back then I could never have imagined. By the time I got to Iceland, I had exhausted my Gordimer supply and bought new books (my new credit card had been sent to my friend’s house, so I once again had money) – Jose Saramago, Bohumil Hrabal, Haruki Murakami.

I never wanted to leave. Unfortunately, I did not listen to my instinct and did leave, and found that leaving had been a huge mistake. I should have stayed. At least I returned as soon as I could.

Photo (c) Paul Costanich.

“Crimes against books” and “compacting human heads”…

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“Mounds of human heads wander into the distance.
I dwindle among them. Nobody sees me. But in books
much loved, and in children’s games, I shall rise
from the dead to say the sun is shining!”

Osip Mandelstam

It has been, rather forgotten by me, more than ten years since I first read Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude. I recall finding the book in a 1 dollar pile of discards in a bookstore south of Seattle. Having read I Served the King of England in the summer of 1999, on the tail end of my first visits to the Czech Republic and the eastern and central Europe I had been reading and writing about from afar, it had always been a struggle to find this literature. The Czechs I had met to that point seemed hell-bent on a kind of chip-on-the-shoulder arrogance about their superior intelligence and artistry, possessing a tortured soul and an impossible language for anyone but them to understand. Guarding it closely – almost jealously – as though it would diminish what they had if anyone else could get a glimpse of the brilliance. I imagine this attitude being more a Cold War-era hangover than anything else. But I don’t know. My path, which at that moment in 1999, was still at least partly paved with stones from the Slavic studies academic arena, did not wind in that direction.

“‘How much more beautiful it must have been in the days when the only place a thought could make its mark was the human brain and anybody wanting to squelch ideas had to compact human heads, but even that wouldn’t have helped because real thoughts come from outside and travel with us like the noodle soup we take to work; in other words, INQUISITORS BURN BOOKS IN VAIN. If a book has anything to say, it burns with a quiet laugh…‘”

In my recent rereading of Too Loud a Solitude, I discovered an Amazon.com “review” (I won’t really call it that so much as I will call it a collection of notes about things that struck me while reading the book) that I posted in 2003. I had forgotten the review, but there were little bits I had remembered from my previous reading.

For example, quotes, such as “It is from books that I’ve learned the heavens are not humane”. Or better yet, the narrator referring to his tale as a “portrait of the artist as an old mushroom face” (which recently took on even more immediacy when a friend described someone’s morning face as looking like a “used teabag”). Reading the book again, the same imagery jumped out at me – the art and its destruction mixed among garbage. The onslaught of technology, wiping out a way of life or a particular job. Or a theme we discuss at work sometimes – the destruction of beauty. One colleague, who lived for some time in Mexico, marveled at the hard work and skill that Mexican women put into creating the most elaborate piñatas – only to see them destroyed, beaten violently until the candy hidden inside exploded out onto the ground. Perfect analogies for the transitory and temporary nature of beauty. It is only here for a moment. The ‘hero’ of Too Loud a Solitude spent his life operating a wastepaper compactor and extracted the lesson that there is beauty in destruction.

Even current events seem to touch upon the timeliness of the message and imagery – for example, the conscientious (if strange) dumpster divers who go looking for treasures in the garbage because we live in the kind of society when people throw away insane amounts of perfectly good things – food, furniture, appliances. Our throwaway society with its millions of starving people (in the US for example) disposes of and destroys everything. It is no wonder we see people as disposably.