Monday, July 28, 2008

Obsessively Reading

I've always been an obsessive reader--of classics, of trash, of magazines, of the back of cereal boxes, of mailing circulars--but lately that obsessiveness has ratcheted up a degree. I don't know know why really except that I view reading the way a lot of people view TV: a way to relax after work, to unwind before bed. And I was pretty distraught there for a while, so naturally I turned to reading only to discover that hey--I fucking love books. The stress disappeared but the late nights engrossed in a book did not.

Sometime around the middle of last month I noticed that I've been averaging about a book a week for some time now. Some of them I forget as soon as I finish but others stick in my brain for a bit longer.

I figured I'd start listing the books I've been reading here because, well, I got out the habit of blogging and was startled to realize this morning that I really miss it. (I haven't abandoned reading blogs, mind you: there are still a half dozen or so I visit daily.) But I miss the feeling that my days are being chronicled somehow and the everything isn't just passing by in one vague blur.

So hopefully this will jump start things around here:

I just finished Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. I tore through this one in just three days. I enjoyed reading about circus life in the 30s and thought her writing style was clear, hypnotic and definitely easy. She tells a good tale and has some juicy classics: abusive husband/villain; charming educated young male protagonist who adores animals; lovable freak (ie Wordsworth-reading dwarf, etc); quirky elephant; lovely woman caught in a loveless marriage aching for our protagonist to save her. I didn't care so much for the stories frame, though. We meet Jacob when he's either 90 or 93 (he can't remember which) and the story is told through the form of memories and dreams. I also didn't care for the much too-neat ending nor its happily ever after flavor. Still, a good quick read. Not quite junk food, but only a step or two above.

Last week was all about Stones from the river by Ursula Hegi. I was actually completely surprised by how much I enjoyed this one. (It was an Oprah's Book Club selection, so I have to admit I was already prepared for it to skew on the trashy side.) But it was insightful. Well told. And had moments of truly beautiful prose. The novel traces the life of a German female dwarf named Trudi from her birth right after World War I to the mid 1950s. In doing so Hegi offers a well-drawn history of the German mindset during the between-the-war years. The portrait of the Nazi rise to power in this small town outside Dusseldorf was one of the best I've read in the genre: how an integrated community could turn against itself, turning in their Jewish neighbors or, as in the case of Trudi, hiding them at great personal risk. The novel also embraces the idea of otherness and prejudice: dwarf versus able-bodied; effeminate versus heterosexual; Jewish versus German etc. etc. I'm going to take a look at some of her other books now, I think.

Before that I read Caravaggio by Francine Prose. This was a short bio--maybe 150pages tops--in a series penned by well-know authors. I was entranced by the tales of this irreverent and apparently not too ethical 15th century painter. He was famous for using prostitutes and beggars as models for his paintings of famous biblical scenes: the martyrdom of Peter; the calling of the Apostle Mathew; the death of Saint Lucy. To my modern eyes the paintings int he insert didn't seem all that racy but after Prose put them in the proper context I was pretty impressed with the man's audacity. the Francine Prose is a fantastic writer and when she turns her eye to these small nonfiction projects her brilliance shines through. I've since picked up her travel book on Sicily; that's next on the list.

Albert Camus' The Fall. I didn't actually finish this one because the translation was so crappy. (One of my mother's circa 1960s college texts I fished out of my bookcase.) It was interesting, though: unreliable French narrator tells a fellow Frenchman his life story over the course of a couple of nights at a bar in Amsterdam. I'm going to go back to it as soon as I'm done with the book on Sicily.

There's three more on the list (since I've been keeping track via a handy Excel doc) but I'll save those for tomorrow.

On a side note, I'm a big fan of the spreadsheet. A well-designed spreadsheet is a thing of beauty I tell you. More data is always a good thing.

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