What I Have Been Reading, November 2010

Alessandro Baricco‘s Silk – This book is a perfect little dream. It is very short, with chapters of single pages, a fine-boned and delicate novel. It is almost too smooth, too light, too silken. It needs some coarseness, I think, to make it a truly great novel, and yet, a single grain of coarseness might ruin its effect. It is a beautiful thing, to be sure, but I am not sure what to do with it. It is like a silk shirt: it looks and feels wonderful, but it is almost too delicate to wear.

Mario Vargas Llosa’s In Praise of the Stepmother and The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto – When Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, I had never heard his name, so I noted it as one of the many glaring gaps in my literary education and promptly went to my local bookshops to see if they had any of his books.  I eventually found two: In Praise of the Stepmother and  The Notebooks of Don Rigoberto, but they were nothing like what I expected.   All of the discussion I had heard about Llosa had emphasized the deeply political nature of his work, but these two little novels are far more erotic than political.  Both are extended reflections on ideas of fantasy and fulfillment, fetish and taboo, innocence and seduction, and they are both certainly the work of a very talented writer, but I was expecting something very different, and I intend to see if I can find some of his other works as well.

Robertson Davies’ The Deptford Trilogy – I remember enjoying these books when I was in highschool, but I enjoyed them even more on my second reading.  Davies writes books that combine mythology with realism in marvelous ways, and the stories of his characters embody this ability, being told and retold so that fact and myth fold inextricably into one another.  There are some bits of each novel, especially the second, that I could very easily do without, but the effect of the novels are not greatly diminished by these narrative lapses, and I would rank them as highly as any Canadian novels I have ever read.

Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity – The narrative voice of this novel is so engaging and so amusing that it almost makes up for the story’s lack of substance.  Beneath the narrator’s banter, however, there is really only a self-absorbed, faintly neurotic, mostly aimless, middle-aged, otherwise average guy, and the climax of the book is really only his realization that he is indeed a self-absorbed, faintly neurotic, mostly aimless, middle-aged, otherwise average guy, which is rather less than earth-shattering.  Now, it is still a very amusing book, but unless you need help learning that you should probably give people the music they like rather than the music you like, it is not a very profound book.  I would save it for reading on the bus or on the toilet or any other place where you will not likely have the chance to think about it too deeply.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s I Will Marry When I Want – Ngugi wa Thiong’o was a finalist for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, and another writer whose name I had never heard before.  Ngugi is Kenyan, and so I asked a Kenyan friend of mine about him, only to discover that this friend had met Ngugi personally, had traveled with Ngugi’s daughter when she came to Canada, and had acted in one of Ngugi’s plays, I Will Mary When I Want, which he was then kind enough to lend me.  The story takes place in Kenya during the rule of dictator Daniel arap Moi, and it explores the injustices that remained in Kenyan society as a result of colonization and that were being retrenched by the new Kenyan upper-class.  It is a simple story, in many respects, but a powerful one, and I enjoyed it very much.

Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s – The Club Dumas – This is a book for which there is no ready genre.  It is a mystery, certainly, but it is also a literary homage to the person and the work of Alexandre Dumas, a kind of literary mystery, perhaps, so that its ideal reader would not be the traditional mystery aficionado (who might understandably be bored by the many allusions to the serial novel culture of France in the 1800s), nor the traditional reader of literature (who might understandably be critical of its many generic elements), but the unabashed lover of story in its many guises, generic and literary both, the kind of reader who made Dumas so popular in the first place.   The novel has its faults, to be sure, and I would myself have separated its two plots into independent novels, but it is a good read nevertheless, one of those rare books that stimulates the mind and the imagination in equal measure.

George Herbert’s The English Works – I took this book off the shelf, where it had been sitting since university, mostly because Dave kept telling me how big an influence Herbert had been on him when he was younger.  Try as I might, however, I was unable really to love Herbert.  His poems, however sincere, and I do think that they are very sincere, seem too morally obvious to me, too contrived.  They seem too much like exercises that he had set for himself and too little like true feeling.  I will withhold any final judgment until Dave and I can speak further, but I am not hopeful that I will ever appreciate Herbert in the way that he does.

Ernest Hemingway’s True at First Light – This was, by complete coincidence, the second book set in Kenya that I read in less than a month.  After going thirty years and change without reading anything at all set in that country, I feel that the word ‘coincidence’ is almost inadequate here, but it will have to do.  The novel, based more or less on Hemingway’s experiences as an unofficial game warden in Kenya, is set decades earlier than Ngugi’s I Will Mary When I Want, during the early stages of the Mau Mau uprising against the British, sometime about 1953.  It has all the vivid simplicity of image for which Hemingway is justly known, but there is a greater easiness about it than some of his other work, a sense of something like contentment.  This may be because it remained unfinished at his death and was edited for publication by his son Patrick, but whatever the reason, it has a decidedly different quality about it than his other work, and it makes a truly interesting addition to Hemingway’s body of work.

  1. Lauren said:

    Have you ever read anything else by Robertson Davides? The Deptford Trilogy is certainly the best, but his other two trilogies are very good as well. As are his handful of other standalone books. (Weird confession: I have been saving one of his books for years and haven’t yet managed to bring myself to read it because I’ve read all of his other novels and can’t bear the thought of there not being any more.)

  2. Lauren,

    I have read one each of his other trilogies when I chanced on them at a cottage, and I have read Lyre of Orpheus as well, but I have just bought a copy of The Salterton Trilogy for a dollar, and I am planning to read it over the Holidays.

  3. Is Davies kind of comparable to Joyce on a Canadian level?

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