The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

Why Carson McCullers? Why The Heart is a Lonely Hunter? There’s no satisfactory answer to this. The names are there in my memory, floating free, connected to nothing. I knew nothing about the author or the title. A friend told me I would like it, but that was after I had already picked it out and brought it home. Post ‘purchase’ reinforcement. I’m intrigued now by how the conversations will be related seeing as the central character is a deaf-mute–I’m currently learning American Sign Language–but that was also a subsequent discovery. A female author? I am always looking to read away from the old white men. Could that be all there was to it? My hand must’ve hovered over this book on other library visits, finally it landed.

-Reading the Why

Amnesia Moon by Jonathan Lethem

I’m quite excited about Jonathan Lethem. I should be careful, but could he be a new favourite author?

There needs to be a peppier term for ‘general fiction’. We have sci-fi, crime, horror, comedy, transgressional, historical, gay, etcetra, etcetra, but we don’t have a snappy term for the other stuff, or more accurately, the stuff that is not ‘other stuff’. ‘Other stuff’ have names. (There’s literary fiction, but that’s more a comment on the style than the content.) I bring this up because I want to tell you how Lethem mixes genres, but the genres he mixes are science fiction and general fiction, and without a more specific term, that just sounds like he writes science fiction.

Until very recently I didn’t even realise Lethem wrote science fiction at all. I read Fortress of Solitude some years ago, and despite the sci-fi title, mostly it was a story about two kids growing up in Brooklyn, about race, graffiti and the city. Admittedly there was a ring that gave them the ability to fly but it featured so rarely that it almost seemed out of place. Then a few weeks ago, I peered again at his shelf in the library in my search for not-just-the-usual and was surprised by all these blurbs teasing stories of futuristic cities, post-apocalyptic America and the colonisation of other planets, but all grounded firmly in the human element. It sounded too good to be true.

I love stuff that is difficult to categorise, stuff that is difficult to shelf. I picked up Amnesia Moon, a careful toe in the water. There was a whiff here of something special. But, again, I should be careful. I thought Fortress of Solitude was okay, but I didn’t love it. And as for interesting blurbs, we all know there are plenty of authors who would do well to restrict themselves to only writing blurbs. Which one is Lethem? I guess I’ll find out.

-Reading the Why

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid

Argh! Books to read piling up again! There’s the stack of library books, my ‘curated’ booklist for these few months. There’re the books on loan from friends, which always come with doses of guilt that grow every time I pass them over for something else. There’re the books that I found or rescued or received, and a couple that are presents from friends, actually just the one friend.

So, as always when the situation get’s like this, what do I do? I reach for the smallest book, like an emergency pressure release valve, get one out of the way quickly, then I can get back to the rest, and there are some that I’m quite excited about!

I never really wanted to read The Reluctant Fundamentalist. I knew of it, of course, the Booker shortlist, the movie, but it never particularly drew me. I only have it because a friend was making room on her shelf. So I took in Mr Mohsin Hamid, neither of us knowing that he would become just one of my unillustrious summer hustles. It’s totally unfair, I know. He may never have come with me if he had known.

Write you again soon.

-Reading the Why

Foe by J.M. Coetzee

There are a small number of highly respected and widely liked authors who I despise, though over the years their continued popularity and esteem have worn my ire down to a surly resignation. I call them my arch-nemeses, which would of course make perfect sense, or at least something more than perfect nonsense, if I were a writer, if I actually wrote, if they knew, or were at least aware of, me and my resentment. It’s a bad hero that the arch-nemesis does not know, and is not in the least threatened of even affected by. Though I suspect they are here the heroes, not me.

Ewan McIan is my main antagonist. You may know him by his civilian name Ian McEwan. Paulo Coelho (aka The Alchemist) is another. And J.M. Coetzee. I am not judging them unfairly; by that I mean I’m not judging them blindly. I have read numerous books from each of them. McIan I despise because all his stories are about the whole world spiralling out of control, but really, from one lousy misunderstanding, when a simple ‘oh, that’s not what I meant’ would have sufficed. It reminds me of the cartoon Why Breaking Bad would’ve never worked in Europe: Oh, you have cancer, here, have some treatment. The end. I hate Coelho because of his hollow esoteric rubbish. Need I say more?

And Coetzee? Coetzee is most often praised for his ‘spare’ prose, but I just find him boring. Still I remain fascinated by him (and the others too, to a lesser extent). I give them chance after chance. There are still books from Coetzee that I want to read, Elizabeth Costello, for example. I’ve read a little about his writing so I know why his work is valued, why it’s good. And the reasons, I like. But unfortunately it mostly just feels like those descriptions of modern art pieces, wonderful, insightful, blisteringly scathing, but which piece are we talking about exactly?

And Foe really does sound fascinating. I just hope it’s not boring.

-Reading the Why

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Good trip to the library today.

It’s not always easy, finding books that speak to me, from the past or from the future, finding the right books for the moment. It can take hours, stalking back and forth between the stacks, between continents, across centuries. It’s something I always look forward to. Each visit is like a little piece of art, each pile of books a carefully curated selection.

Today I was feeling curious for new things, new authors, new styles even, but each of my early attempts was frustrated, I kept sliding back to the old, old-man, stalwarts: Nabokov, Vonnegut, Steinbeck. Slowly, though, slowly, the shadows retreated, my focus opened.

One of the books I found was H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. Nature writing is not something I’d really looked into before, unless you count some James Herriot stories when I was little. (I guess that counts.) It seems to be popular these days, or at least getting some sort of attention. We had a very successful reading of Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun a couple of months ago, and more recently, there was the book about lake swimming. And H is for Hawk. One thing though: why is it always paired with grief? Do the two naturally go together? That’s what a more naive me would probably have reflected. Now, cynical as I have become, I just wonder which executive art director is responsible for creating this aesthetic.

-Reading the Why

[PS. Check out the cover, it is gorgeous.]


Der Spieler von Fjodor Dostojewskij

Ich muss etwas gestehen, ich habe Der Spieler schon fertig gelesen. Ich weiß, ich weiß, der Punkt war, daß ich immer bevor ich ein Buch lese, darüber schreibe, warum ich dieses Buch gewählt habe, wie meine Gedanken auf dieses Buch geleitet ist, aber es ist nicht immer so einfach, eigentlich nie einfach, auf Kommando hinzusetzen und die Gedanken klar und sinnvoll zu formulieren. Zudem auf Deutsch! Des öfteren will man einfach lesen. Ich befürchte, es wird nur schlimmer. Zumindest ist das Folgendes basiert auf Notizen, die ich vor dem Lesen niedergeschrieben (also, niedergetippt) habe. Soviel konnte ich mich noch zwingen, zu machen:

Wenn du auf die Grafik schauen könntest, diese Grafik, die ich mal erwähnt habe, die alles was ich gelesen habe sortiert und zur Analyse presentiert zeigt, die bisher nur als Konzept existiert, würdest du sehen, daß ich meisten nur englische Bücher lese, d.h. Bücher, die auf Englisch geschrieben sind, und einige, aber wenige, Übersetzungen ins Englischen. Zudem auch einiges auf Deutsch. Warum? Na, kurz gesagt, weil ich Bücher ausschliesslich in der Originalsprache lesen möchte, was natürlich blödsinn ist. Ich werde nie, nicht in ein tausend Jahren, alle Sprachen beherrschen, in der was lesenswertes geschrieben wurde, und ich bin derjenige, der daraus verliert. Aber gleichzeitig habe ich genug schlechte Übersetzungen gelesen um zu wissen daß sie ein sonst gutes Buch durchaus ruinieren kann.

Daher lese ich keine französische Autoren, das ich vielleicht in meinem Leben noch erreichbar, daß ich Französisch einigermaßsen beherrsche. Aber Russisch oder Islandisch oder was sonst?

Die Bibliothek für Anglistik-Amerikanistik der Humboldt Universität hat natürlich keine Übersetzungenen ins Englishen. Wenn man russische Autoren studiert, studiert man das unter Russiche Literatur auf Russisch nicht Englisch. Die öffentliche Bibliotheken haben aber zweifellos Übersetzungen aus alle Sprachen. Aber ausreichend wie meine Deutsch ist, mich verständlich zu machen, wenn ich auf Deutsch lese, geht es trotzdem was verloren, es bleibt ein Distanz zwischen mir und die Geschichte. Ich meine, wenn ich schon mal eine Übersetzung lesen muss, dann besser auf meine Muttersprache, oder, statt zweimal Lost-in-translation? Na, also, was tun?

Ungelöst wie das bleibt, in diesem Fall habe ich Dostojewskijs Der Spieler in einer Kiste zu verschenken gefunden. Ja, wenn das Universum das schon mal veranlasst, daß es zu mir findet…

-Reading the Why

The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin

The truth is I read a lot of science-fiction as a teenager. Many of my favourite books are sci-fi books. Then at some point I convinced myself that all science fiction was trash. I’m not sure how that happened, but the why is I got snobby about reading. I was still watching every trashy sci-fi movie that came out. Vonnegut was the only exception.

But now I’m slowly seeing again that science fiction can be deep, thoughtful and important, like good science fiction should be, and has always been, allegorical, a dirty mirror held up to ourselves. I guess I forgot that, like with anything, there’s going to be bad and good sci-fi, and like with everything, much more bad than good.

I always thought Ursula Le Guin was one of the trashy sci-fi authors. Recently I found out that she actually has a lot to say about society, about politics and gender. I also read that she writes a lot about anarchism, real anarchism not anarchy or chaos, the same anarchism Noam Chomsky wrote about not the one Norm Society has brainwashed us all to fear. So I’m giving her a go. I’m happy to be wrong.

-Reading the Why

[End of Part Four]