In addition to urging you to select from our Remarkable Reads, herein we offer our personal choices for your summer leisure and/or delectation, the fence-straddling conjunctions intending to recognize that
some of you are still busy in these supposedly slower months.
From Editor, Eric Darton:
Edmund Jabés, Book of Margins. Rosemary Waldrop, trans. University of Chicago Press, 1993. Nearly weightless as compared with his better-known Book of Questions, this beautifully translated later work – redolent with Jabès' beautiful, at times shockingly direct mystical poetry – carries the tremendous energy inherent in the spaces surrounding the Word.
Evelyn Fox Keller, Reflections on Gender and Science. Yale Unversity Press, 1985. Keller, whose professional background is in mathematical biophysics, traces the masculinist biases of modern science to their roots in classical western ontology. Superbly researched and rendered in clear, vigorous prose, Keller’s insights into the nature of Platonic thought are indispensable.
William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain. New Directions, 1956.Drawing on legends of Vineland, the text of Columbus’s diary, and continuing through the American Civil War, the incomparable doctor/poet/storyteller links together a series of crucial vignettes that, with an absolute refusal of irony, unsparingly narrate the formation of our Brave New World. Originally published in 1925, Williams’s method anticipates Galeano’s Memories of Fire by several generations.
James Baldwin, If Beale Street Could Talk. Random House, 1974. Baldwin’s empathy for the young and their vicissitudes is writ large in this concise mid-career novel. One of the master’s most emotionally unguarded, rigorously crafted texts.
Violette Leduc, The Lady and the Little Fox Fur. Derek Coltman, trans. Penguin. A brief, intense tour-de-force of closely-held madness. English-language readers have been done a great service by the first-rate translation of this short novel by an as yet little known literary master.
In keeping with our Criminal Elements Pocket, Darton also recommends The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: The Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale, in the form of the British TV series available on Amazon Prime. We understand that the book can also be had from your local independent bookstore, Amazon, your local library OR The Open Library (ebook format on loan if you so desire.)
From Editor, Hardy Griffin:
Aaron Hamburger. The View from Stalin’s Head. Random House. The stories in this collection simultaneously feel perfectly polished and astoundingly raw. They revolve around Prague, not in the immediate days after the Velvet Revolution popularized by an ad where a pair of Levi’s are traded for a car, but rather the Prague where “one thousand six hundred fifty detonators” are used to dismember the giant statue of Stalin that overlooks this city from a prominent bluff. Hamburger captures the sludge-like zeitgeist of this moment: “The space on the bluff has remained empty ever since, except for a twenty-five-foot statue of Michael Jackson, which stood there for a week in 1996.” In re-reading this collection, I find the writer's ability to capture the historical sea change on the level of the individual living in Prague at that time to have interesting echoes and reverberations in our current era, where so many of us around the world are living in societies undergoing seismic shifts in identity (ugly, bad, and good).
Dinesen, Isak. Winter’s Tales. Vintage. When the heat starts warping asphalt and the humidity turns regular clothes into neoprene wetsuits, I like to reach for something cold. Dinesen doesn’t disappoint—her characters are not like the emotionally frozen detectives who are the current rage in her native Denmark and beyond. Rather, in the manner of black ice, Dinesen’s people oscillate dangerously just above and below freezing, and the resulting combination of steady forward movement, weight, and frisson propel the reader into the maw of the moment. And Dinesen doesn’t simply present the wrecks that arise but follows the cruel, twisting aftermath equally well.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Bluebeard. Delacorte Press. This is actually my favorite Vonnegut novel, or possibly it’s a tie with Slaughterhouse Five. This novel picks up the story of Rabo Karabekian, the “erstwhile American painter” whose explanation of his Abstract Expressionist paintings in Breakfast of Champions turns the middle-American townspeople’s scorn into appreciation and applause. In this novel, Rabo again wrestles with the Abstract Expressionist movement’s meaning, what he describes as paintings “about absolutely nothing but themselves.” But his own position in this movement is precarious, as he used the Sateen Dura-Luxe brand of house paint topped with colored paint for his pieces, and it turns out this paint and the tape peel off in time. And as we go through, we ‘peel off’ the various layers of Rabo’s character, from his Armenian background to his friendship with the writer Paul Slazinger, who is also a WWII vet like Karabekian. And through it all plays Vonnegut’s note at the outset about how wealth has enabled “certain sorts of human playfulness” to be endowed with “distressing seriousness.”
From Editor, Bronwyn Mills
The House of Wisdom. Al-Khalili, Jim. As I commented in an editor's note at the end of Darton's essay on alchemy and the translation movement in medieval Baghdad, Al-Khalili has authored a book on the subject of the Islamic contributions that built a stunning foundation for the sciences under the Caliph, Al-Mamun, and his "House of Wisdom," in the early middle ages and a bit beyond. In ebook form as The House of Wisdom or as Pathfinders in the UK as well as in paperback, international edition as Pathfinders, the Golden Age of Arabic Science.
With science in view and should you be paddling about on the beach, Other Minds: the Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness, by Peter Godfrey-Smith. Farrar, Straus and Giroux , 2016. Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher of science and a diver who has actually specialized in and observed octopi and whose academic kudos are equally impressive. His book is rigorous and thoughtful. On numerous levels, the book will stimulate you to think out of the box and out of the conventions of just your own species. Godfrey-Smith also has a blog about cephalopods, well worth visiting--Metazoan.
Chamoiseau, Patrick. Solibo Magnificent. Vintage, 1999, is magnifique, indeed. The author is from Martinique and, like other Caribbean writers, writes "...in a French more French than that of the French, but not at all like you do it..."—the spoken creole of his island—to show us mere mortals how one should really tell a story. He is the winner of a Prix Goncourt for his earlier debut, Texaco, and ably translated from by Rose-Myriam Rejouis and Val Vinokurov.
Lovelace, Earl. Salt. Persea, 1997. Pardon the publication date; I have a first edition. Trinidadian, Lovelace is a master of language enchantment, with a subtext that naturally evolves from the act of story telling, though his pyrotechnics are neither facile nor self-serving. This book begins with an ur-tale of Africans in
the Caribbean and examines with the knotty problem of political and cultural assertiveness in an imperfect world. And it's about language. You can't do much better in terms of music than Caribbean English.
Mandelstam, Osip. Noise of TIme. Northwestern University Press, 2002. We have included a discussion from a past blog of ours, linked to our "Archives" menu, and concerning some of the contents of this precious prose collection by the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam. Recommended to me by British poet John Ash. See "Back Issues and More," under our Archives top menu item for a link to that discussion and when you get the book, be sure the translator is Clarence Brown, the master.
wa Thiong'o, Ngugi. Wizard of the Crow (Mũrogi wa Kagogo in the origininal Gikuyu.) Pantheon. 2006. (Or the ebook) This is a big book that satirizes the klepto regime of a corrupt African state, with particular resonance for all of us having to deal with one of our own. Ngugi incorporates the orature of his Gikuyu traditions in this very pertinent tale for today. He also does his own translations.
Todd, Charles. A Test of Wills. Harper, 2006. For the crime novel fans. We list the first in a series of 19—number 20 will soon be out—books following the sleuthing of Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard. Rutledge is a shell-shocked veteran of WWI and his sidekick is the taunting voice of Hamish MacLeod, whom Rutledge, as an officer, had to execute for insubordination during the war. What distinguishes these novels from the pack (of other crime writers) is that they are very well written, linguistically and otherwise. Charles Todd is a pen name taken by the authors, a mother and son team. They have also written a Bess Crawford series about a WWI army nurse (the Brits called them "sisters") which is equally well done.
NOTE: In your search to find/purchase books from our list, we also suggest The Open Library, which lends ebooks, suggests a nearby library where you can find print copies, and/or suggests where one can purchase their own copy, e- or print. They offer a wide selection, though not all books are among their very large collection. Joining them is free.
Oddly, we might also note a rather good list, minus the editorial patter, offer by The Paris Review as non-beach reading.
Tangential to the reading of books we recommend a peek at Steve Dodson's Language Hat, a blog which we have listed on our News, Notices and Links page, and its brief reference to language changes in English as directed by the old New Yorker style book for writers. And should you merely wish to listen to something of interest, we have mentioned PIE in our introduction; and we have linked that to a Guardian podcast on that subject, waggishly dubbed "A Slice of PIE."