Blogs: Literary

For those of us who love classic literature, Multnomah County Library is a great resource. There are Classics Pageturners book discussion groups at Hillsdale Library and Hollywood Library.  Copies of the books will be available two months in advance of the discussions.  Please call the branch to confirm.  Following that are a series of lists of Western and non-Western literature from every era.

Here are the Classics Pageturners schedules:

Hillsdale Library Classics Pageturners,

second Saturdays, 3-5 pm

 

September 9, 2017, Sonnets by William Shakespeare. (This is a different edition than the group will read)

 

October 14, 2017, The Nice and the Good, by Iris Murdoch

 

November 11, 2017, It Can't Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis

 

December 9, 2017, Billy Budd and Other Stories, by Herman Melville

 

January 13, 2018, Canterbury Tales, by GeoffreyChaucer

 

February 10, 2017, Cousin Bette, by Honore de Balzac

 

March 10, 2018, The Persians, by Aeschylus

 

April 14, 2018, The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli

 

May 12, 2018, The Early History of Rome, books I-V, by Livy

 

June 9, 2018, The Trial, by Franz Kafka

Hollywood Library Classics Pageturners,

third Sundays, 2-4 pm

 

September 17, 2017,  Ficciones, by Jorge Luis Borges

 

October 15, 2017, Iphigenia in Aulis and The Trojan Women, by Euripides. (These are different editions than the group will read)

 

November 19, 2017, The Vicar of Wakefield, by Oliver Goldsmith

 

December 17, 2017, The Captain's Daughter and Other Stories, by Alexander Pushkin

 

January 21, 2018, The Heart of the Matter, by Graham Greene

 

February 18, 2018, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Matsuo Basho

 

March 18, 2018, The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

 

April 15, 2018, The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius

 

May 20, 2018, The Analects, by Confucius. (This is a different edition and translation than the group will read)

 

June 17, 2018, The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot. (This is a different edition than the group will read)

 

cover image of joy harjo books

David Naimon is a writer and host of the radio broadcast and podcast, Between the Covers, honored by The Guardian as one of the best book podcasts today. He has interviewed such authors as Anthony Doerr, Colson Whitehead, Ursula K. Le Guin, George Saunders, Claudia Rankine, and Maggie Nelson. His own writing can be found in AGNI, Tin House and Boulevard among others and has been cited in The Best American Essays, The Best American Travel Writing, The Best Small Fictions and the Pushcart Prize anthology.

There’s a lot of talk these days about building walls, but little discussion about one already built, a long-standing high-security literary wall. As the host of a book podcast, I’m often thinking about how to curate a roster of writers who reflect the multiplicity that is the literary world, guests writing from a wide array of backgrounds as well as writers writing in different or harder to classify literary forms. As a nation that historically has regarded itself as a welcoming place to immigrants, we love narratives — from Saul Bellow to Viet Thanh Nguyen, from Maxine Hong Kingston to Junot Diaz — written by or about immigrants becoming American. But, oddly, at the same time, we seem incurious when it comes to literature not originally written in English.

There is an oft-cited statistic that translated works make up a paltry 3-5 percent of the books published in the U.S. in any given year. But Eliot Weinberger, translator of Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges and Bei Dao among others, says this statistic is entirely false. Only 300 to 400 literary translations are published each year — an incredible .3 to .5 percent of the annual books published, Weinberger argues. Fortunately, one of the unexpected silver linings of the collapse of the big six publishing houses is not only the rise of small presses, presses that take more risks (and which have been coming away with some of the biggest literary awards as a result), but also the rise of small presses devoted to translation. We seem to be in the beginnings of a translation renaissance. The origin of the phrase “to translate” comes from the Latin translatus, which means “to carry across.” My list of recommended titles is written in the spirit of this new interest in carrying works of literature across the literary wall, this new desire to be inspired and renewed by the writing of other cultures. And if you find yourself taken by one or more of these books, you can follow up your reading of it with a listen to my conversation with the author.
 
Faces in the Crowd by Valeria Luiselli
 
Mexican writer Valeria Luiselli has an unusual relationship with her translator. Before Christina McSweeney translates one of Luiselli’s books, McSweeney asks to know the songs Luiselli was listening to, the images she was looking at, and how the room looked where she wrote the book. Luiselli herself explicitly plays with the role of translation in her work and with the role of the translator in a book’s creation, even going so far as to include a chapter in one of her novels written by her translator. It is hard to pick which of Valeria Luiselli’s three utterly enchanting books to recommend here but the one closest to my heart is Faces in the Crowd. It follows a a Mexican translator in New York charged with finding “the next Bolaño.” She discovers the work of an obscure poet, falls in love with it, finds herself possibly haunted by his ghost, their identities becoming more and more porous as the novel (and her translation of him) progresses.
 
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
 
Ways to Disappear is the first novel by poet and translator Idra Novey. Perhaps best known for her translation of Clarice Lispector’s classic The Passion According to G.H., Novey plays with the ways translators really aren’t “best known” for anything, the ways in which they are delegated to the shadows and their work never considered a truly creative act in its own right. Novey flips the narrative in this novel, making the translator, Emma, super visible as the hero-protagonist at the center of an international thriller/mystery. When Emma’s author, Beatriz Yagoda, the one she has been translating for years, goes missing, Emma abandons her boyfriend and her life in Pittsburgh to go to Brazil to find her. ‘Who could know an author better, her mind and intentions more thoroughly, than the author’s own translator?’ Emma thinks. But Beatriz’s Brazilian family, the ones that see her daily unwritten moments, beg to differ. Ways to Disappear is a page-turning philosophical book, one that functions both as a witty suspense novel and a meditation on the mysteries of language.
 
 
Paris Review editor Lorin Stein calls Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei “the best primer on translation I’ve ever read, also the funniest and most impatient,” and that is the marvel of this little book. If you are already interested in poetry and come to this book with a curiosity about the mysteries of translation, you will surely love Weinberger’s classic. But if you are intimidated by poetry and don’t think you have any particular interest in translation, this book may yet provide an unexpected entryway into both. The project is deceptively simple, with Weinberger examining 19 different translations of a classic four-line poem by the eighth-century poet Wang Wei, but the result is a newfound wonder about language and cross-cultural communication. You will finish this book marveling at the creative feat of any act of translation, running to your favorite dog-eared copy of Anna Karenina or Remembrances of Things Past to see which translator gifted you access to these works written now once again in your own tongue.
 
Seeing Red by Lina Meruane
 
It’s rare that a writer tours for their book in its translated form, and even rarer that such a writer comes through Portland. So I felt fortunate to get the chance to interview Chilean writer Lina Meruane, an author already well-known in the Spanish-speaking world. She has just now had one of her books translated into English for the first time, thanks to Deep Vellum, one of the newer presses dedicated solely to works in translation. Deep Vellum joins the likes of publishers old and new (for example, And Other Stories, Coffeehouse Press, New Directions, Tilted Axis, Wakefield Press) that are making this a particularly exciting time for American readers (and book podcast hosts). Seeing Red opens with the narrator losing her vision and somehow creates a text that is more visual, not less, as a result. Intertwining fiction and autobiography, the novel explores and interrogates the tropes of illness narratives in relation to gender and gender stereotypes. As a result, Seeing Red defies your expectations at every turn.
 
Part of the reason it felt like literary luminaries W.G. Sebald and Roberto Bolaño exploded on the American literary scene in one big boom is because it took us so long to take notice and begin translating their work. Once one book caught on, the rest came in one big rush. Hopefully, with this renewed interest in translation, we won’t have to wait quite as long for an onrush of translation of Lina Meruane’s work. I’ll be first in line to read the next one.
 
Listen to audio of my conversations with Luiselli, Novey, Weinberger and Meruane.
Photo of John BrownJohn Brown serves on the Street Roots Board of Directors and has been a Street Roots vendor since 2011. You can find him selling newspapers most days at the Food Front Food Cooperative Grocery in Hillsdale. He was named Vendor of the Year in 2015. A native of Michigan, John is a sports and theater fan. He shares five good books:
 
Spoon River Anthology by Edgar lee Masters
This collection of poems uses the voices of those buried in a rural graveyard to examine the interconnected lives of its citizens. The portraits of these mid-westerners are vivid and ironic, and Masters and his characters have influenced American literature from Sherwood Anderson to Thornton Wilder to Garrison Keillor.
 
The Quest for Karla was the original name of an ominbus collection of three novels, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, SpyThe Honorable SchoolboySmiley’s People, by John le Carré
Three Cold-War espionage novels tell the story of an unlikely hero. George Smiley, a bland, near-sighted cuckold engineers the defection of a Soviet spymaster. Le Carré writes dazzling prose and just perfect dialogue.
 
The Tempest by William Shakespeare
A storm, a shipwreck, a remote island, an overthrown kingdom, the setup and the setting for this late romance by Shakespeare bring together young lovers, old enemies, a sorcerer, a beast, a clown, a sprite, a saint, gods and goddesses. The action of this play covers amazing tricks and maybe the most satisfying ending in the complete canon of Shakespeare. No one drowns.
 
Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
A low-stakes comedy whose characters transcend their faults to achieve heroic stature. Steinbeck’s descriptions of Monterey, California, in the years after World War I are captivating. Flora, fauna, weather, commerce, crime, Heaven  all come alive. This is a short, vibrant novel that reads great, even when revisiting.
 
The Eighth Day by Thornton Wilder
This is a huge novel about two families in coal country early in the 20th century. Murder, adultery, justice and escape are presented for our “indiscrete observation.” Wilder’s third person voice is wise, authoritative and generous.

The comedian Steven Wright said, "everywhere is walking distance if you have the time." The line makes me smile, but it makes me wistful too. If only I had the time.

Walking folds the walker into the pace of the world, while providing respite from the cares attached to our home or workplace. Baudelaire used the word "flaneur" to describe the walking explorer: "For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home; to see the world, to be at the centre of the world, and yet to remain hidden from the world." 

If you're hankering for a long walk but have no time, here are some titles to try, and a longer list, to boot.  :-)

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is the story of a man plagued by the sense that he has made nothing of his life. One day he receives a letter from an old friend who is dying, thanking him for a past kindness. Harold writes a letter of condolence, but when he goes to mail it, he's struck with the sense that he must deliver the letter by hand. And so he sets off on a journey of several hundred miles, with only the clothes on his back. As he walks he reflects on the events that shaped his life.

Walking memoirs abound, with a resurrgence tied to Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. But don't miss the earlier A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson. Relax into the rhytm of Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, by Robert Macfarlane details the author's effort to become more intimately acquainted with his country by starting at his home in Cambridge, England and following the old roads and ancient tracks that crisscross his country. I'm looking forward in particular to Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice, and London for a female perspective on Baudelaire's phenomenon.

Happy reading, and happy trails.

Part of the joy of reading The Improbability of Love was that it was like revisiting the art history classes I loved in college. Author Hannah Rothschild clearly knows the art world, and it was such a pleasure to learn about the mechanics of that world, the kinds of characters that populate it, and the art itself. I learned to keep my iPad close by so I could look up paintings and statues that were mentioned, and all that beauty became part of my experience of the book.

In this novel, a young woman impulsively buys a painting that’s been moldering in a London junk shop for decades. It winds up being an important (imaginary) painting by Watteau, a (non-imaginary) French painter from the eighteenth century- a Rococo painting, featuring attractive people in nice outfits in an outdoor setting. There’s a bit of romance as well as a family secret that is very dark indeed. The painting itself is one of the narrators, telling us about its long, fascinating history, from Madame Pompadour's boudoir to dark days in Nazi Germany. 

Treat yourself and read this book. Then take a look at my list of fiction about art and artists.
 

Kleeman book cover"A woman’s body never really belongs to herself. As an infant, my body was my mother’s, a detachable extension of her own, a digestive passage clamped and unclamped from her body. My parents would watch over it, watch over what went into and out of it, and as I grew up I would be expected to carry on their watching by myself. Then there was sex, and a succession of years in which I trawled my body along behind me like a drift net, hoping that I wouldn’t catch anything in it by accident, like a baby or a disease. I had kept myself free of these things only through clumsy accident and luck. At rare and specific moments when my body was truly my own, I never knew what to do with it."

What is a body and what is it for?  Something to be improved?  Something to be managed?  Something to be disciplined?  Something to be saved?  Something to be remodeled?  Something to set free?  Something to be destroyed?  Alexandra Kleeman's debut novel You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine does a remarkable job of tracking one young (presumably white) woman's body's movement in and through late capitalism.  As much as A - the novel's narrator - tries to escape or resolve her body's contradictions, all she can eventually do is document the various ways her body is seen and reflected.  At every turn, up against every potential escape route - roommate B who spends the first half of the book attemping to become A, boyfriend C who watches porn while they have sex so he might layer "fantasy upon reality upon fantasy," the mirrors she regularly consults for changes in her facial structure, the cult she later joins that prescribes a steady diet of nothing but Kandy Kakes - the possibly edible treats made of nothing ever alive hence nothing actually dead, and finally as a prop in a competitive dating show where real-life lovers test their knowledge of one another or face imposed and permanent separation - A inevitably finds herself simultaneously inside and outside her body, blurred lines never coalescing except in moments of extreme duress.
 
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is a surveillance report mapped and composed by the object of surveillance.  Utilizing anorexia as a kind of totalizing metaphor, the novel turns the commodification of bodies inside out but we end up precisely where we began.  Weird, paranoiac, and desperate, You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine mines territories familiar to fans of DeLillo, Pynchon, and Philip K. Dick - an oddly recognizable and spooky map of our current historical moment  where bodies are necessarily quantifiable but ultimately weightless, until the threat of brutal hunger arrives with a sudden flash.

The Portable Veblen bookjacketLooking for a bit of quirkiness in your books? Here’s a delightful story I zipped through recently.

The Portable Veblen, by Elizabeth McKenzie, tells a story that includes the economist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption”; a big, bad pharmaceutical company; the department of defense; hippie parents; the upcoming marriage of a neurologist who has invented a tool to cut a perfect circle in skulls of soldiers with brain injuries and a translator for the Norwegian Diaspora; and a squirrel. It’s funny and sweet and endearing, just a tad on the experimental side with unique little illustrations sprinkled throughout. The book and its main character, Veblen Amundsen-Hovda, are wonderfully quirky and ultimately quite wise. I laughed, learned new words, and thoroughly enjoyed The Portable Veblen.

If you’d like a bit more unconventionality and eccentricity in your reading, try one of the books on my list here.

Children Of The Sun CoverNeo-nazism and punk rock share ugly and now pretty well-tracked genealogies.  Less well-documented is the once-occulted presence and resilience of gay desire amidst UK white power subcultures and splinter groups like the National Front and the British National Party. 

Max Schaefer's Children of the Sun relentlessly confronts this seeming contradiction via a time-bending collision between two queer protagonists interspersed with insanely well-researched documentation from the "golden years" of UK neo-nazi skinhead culture (roughly late 1970s-about 1990 or so).  Schaefer walks a fine line between unsparing and sympathetic in the development of Tony, a working class teen coming of age as a gay man AND a (hidden) racist skinhead.  Tony's narrative moves forward through a landscape of real-life UK far-right figures (Nicky Crane, Ian Stuart of Skrewdriver, Nick Griffin, Savitri Devi) as James, a mid-20s queer privileged "screenwriter" bankrolled by his well-to-do parents in 2003 becomes increasingly obsessed with the confused collisions between gay subcultures and UK white power movements - Nicky Crane in particular - poster boy for the NF's violent street fighters and who also came out as gay in 1992, months before he died from an AIDs-related illness. 

Schaefer's text reads like a police report, rarely stopping for extended emotional interludes (though when they do come, they hit hard).  Knowing something of Schaefer's personal background, it was never unclear where he stands in terms of the "politics" of his protagonists.  That being said, the narrative never clearly impugns Tony or James (in fact, James comes off more of a problematic dude in the end - which may have much to do with class, Schaefer implies).  Highly recommended for anyone interested in darker cultural histories.

The Elephant's Journey bookjacketElephants...who doesn't love these magnificent intelligent animals? They have been roaming the planet forever and have often been the center of our attention, for good or for bad.

You can see these peculiar protagonist of the animal kingdom in Africa, Asia, and in national parks,  not to mention in circuses, zoos, palaces, and out working the fields. But to see them from a different viewpoint, here are some books that honor the elephant.

The Elephant's Journey by Jose Saramago presents the enchanting narration of Solomon, an Asian elephant, his keeper, and a cortege of people who in 1551 traveled from Lisbon to Vienna when the King of Portugal gave him as a wedding present to the Archduke Maximilian.

Still Life With Elephants by Judy Reene Singer tells us the hilarious story of a horse trainer who goes to Zimbabwe to rescue injured elephants right after she finds out that her husband's lover is pregnant. This revealing trip to Africa makes her confront a series of life challenges, including having to train an elephant and solving her relationship issues.

Michael Morpugo's children's book An Elephant in the Garden portrays Marlene, an elephant who is saved by her zoo keeper at the end of the Nazi regime 1945, when the Russian army invades Dresden and people have fled the city.

I'm sure these noble and wise animals will continue to inspire us even in times when their existance is so adversly affected.

Check out the list below for some related reading suggestions. 

 

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