21/04/2014

On Reading, Part Two

There’s an old quote of uncertain origin, which you are no doubt familiar with: ‘Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, well, it’s too dark to read.’ That’s kind of been me recently – the book as man’s best friend, I mean, not the inside a dog part – and it’s funny in a way how much more enjoyable reading is when you’re reading for pleasure – reading for no other reason than to read, reading because you want to – and not because you have to read.
A little while ago, I started exchanging books with a friend, and am currently working my way through a long list of titles as a result. Many of the books on the list have been translated into English from their original Spanish or Portuguese, and having read a number of them now, it’s interesting seeing how much fuller and more passionate they are than many of the other books I’ve recently come across. There’s a barely disguised passion in them, a very tangible sense of emotional urgency and honesty, and nothing can disguise it. From the devastatingly beauty of James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room – the way David feels about Hella’s return, how he acts around her, how he is around Giovanni, how he leaves Giovanni cold when Hella returns; how sad it is emotionally, as well as in a bathetic kind of way; the sustained tremolo strings of Sábato’s The Tunnel, a literary equivalent to the theme from ‘Psycho’, a convicted criminal’s chance to explain himself and his actions; Isabel Allende’s reimagining of the legend of Zorro, full of swords, dust, sun, sweat, romance, danger and daring; the mischievous antics of Zézé in My Sweet-Orange Tree, contrasted with his heartbreaking suffering, a child caught in an adult’s world, expected to be an adult when he can only be a child; the intoxicating passion of Laura Esquivel’s Like Water For Chocolate, in all of its big, epic, intimate, personal glory, all about kitchens and families, food, Life, Love and Being and the three-hectare bedspread Tita wove for herself; the intricate and unpredictable simplicity of Jorge Luis Borges’ Labyrinths, and how he makes you think and doesn’t expect anything from you other than to actively engage with his writing – he makes you a more intelligent reader just by reading, and you find yourself warming to both his style and his unique way of seeing and it truly is a blessing to be able to join him on his journeys of discovery…
Another book I recently enjoyed, although in an entirely different way, was Julian Barnes’ England, England, about a millionaire who decides to create a microcosmic replica of England in a theme park-style venture on the Isle of Wight. Interrogating ideas of national identity, tradition, cultural myths and the authenticity of history, memory, and remembering, it is also a sly dig at the nature of contemporary businesses, the currency of the monarchy, the ease of acquisition of consumer products, and at the fidelity of a replica in relation to the original. And even though there’s a brilliant deconstruction of the need for history – or rather the process of history- and myth-making in a popular context – with particular attention to the Robin Hood legend, the similarities between Barnes’ Sir Jack Pitman and Australia’s Clive Palmer (with his ‘Titanic II’ and ‘Jurassic Park’ ventures) are a little too pertinent to be merely just a satire.
Next on the list is a healthy helping of Saramago...


What I’ve read this year, part two
Maestro, Peter Goldsworthy
Wish, Peter Goldsworthy
Nothing Like The Sun, Anthony Burgess
Giovanni’s Room, James Baldwin
Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
The Tunnel, Ernesto Sábato
Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson
Zorro, Isabel Allende
My Sweet-Orange Tree, José Mauro de Vasconcelos
Like Water For Chocolate, Laura Esquivel
England, England, Julian Barnes
Labyrinths, Jorge Luis Borges
The House on Mango Street, Sandra Cisneros
Measuring The World, Daniel Kehlmann

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