Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Best of a 2011 Foray Into Modern Lit

Have been reading a lot of modern(ish) literature over the past year, mainly because I've been assigning it to my daughters, and trying to read it ahead of them.  It's been a year of many pleasant surprises.  Surprises, because I've never tended to gravitate toward the modern in literature.  Here, then, is a sampling of my discoveries.

Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen Publisher's decsription:  "Originally published in 1934, Seven Gothic Tales, the first book by "one of the finest and most singular artists of our time" (The Atlantic), is a modern classic.  Here are seven exquisite tales combining the keen psychological insight characteristic of the modern short story with the haunting mystery of the nineteenth-century Gothic tale, in the tradition of writers such as Goethe, Hoffmann, and Poe."    What liked about it:  moody, atmospheric, and elegantly told. Check out her other short story collections--Winter's Tales and Last Tales.
Dimanche by Irene Nemirovsky 
Publisher's description:  "Written between 1934 and 1942, these ten gem-like stories feature all the elements so brilliantly exhibited in Nemirovsky's best-selling novel Suite Francaise:  a keen eye for the details of social class; the tensions between mothers and daughters, husbands and wives; the manners and mannerisms of the French bourgeoisie; questions of religion and personal identity.  Moving from the drawing rooms of prewar Paris to the lives of men and women in wartime France, here we find the beautiful work of a writer at the height of her tragically short career."  What I liked about it:  Nemirovsky's sympathetic, and at the same time absolutely clear-sighted look at human relationships, particularly mothers and daughters.  She depicts flaws and failures without flinching, but with gentle understanding.  And I'm a sucker for prewar European settings.  Also try her Fire in the Blood and All Our Worldly Goods. 

The Book of Sand and Shakespeare's Memory by Jorge Luis Borges 
From the publisher's description:  "Showcasing Borges' depth of vision and his singular image-conjuring power in stories about an infinite book, a one-sided mirror, a golden mask, and a scholar who mysteriously acquires Shakespeare's memory, this hypnotic collection is the capstone to an august literary life."  What I liked about it:  The plots that start with an absolutely ingenious idea, and follow it to an unexpected, but totally logical, conclusion.  Also try his Labyrinths

Selected Stories by Lu Hsun
Publisher's desription:  "Ambitious to reach a large Chinese audience, Lu Hsun wrote his first published story, 'A Madman's Diary,' in the vernacular, a pioneering move in Chinese literature at that time.  With 'The True Story of Ah Q,' a biting portrait of feudal China, he gained popularity in the West.  This collection of eighteen of his greatest stories demonstrates the rich variety of his style and subjects."  What I liked about it:  the portrait of early twentieth-century China, its rural and urban landscapes; its families who seem at some times feudal, at other times modern. 

Malgudi Days by R. K. Narayan  
Publisher's description:  "Introducing this collection of stories, R. K. Narayan describes how in India, 'the writer has only to look out of the window to pick up a character and thereby a story.'  Malgudi Days, featuring short fiction written over almost forty years, is the marvelous result.  Here Narayan portrays an astrologer, a snake charmer, a postman, a vendor of pies and chappatis--all kinds of people, drawn in full color and endearing domestic detail.  And under his magician's touch the whole imaginary city of Malgudi springs to life, revealing the essence of India and of human experience."  What I liked about it:  Delightful characters--the human, domestic side of "stock" Indian types (snake charmers and their ilk).  Also try his A Tiger For Malgudi.

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Publisher's description:  "First published in the Soviet journal Novy Mir in 1962, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch stands as a classic of contemporary literature.  The story of labor camp inmate Ivan Denisovitch Shukov, it graphically describes his struggle to maintain his dignity in the face of communist oppression.  An unforgettable portrait of the entire world of Stalin's forced labor camps, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is one of the most extraordinary literary documents to have emerged from the Soviet Union and confirms Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's stature as 'a literary genius whose talent matches that of Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy' (Harrison Salisbury)."  What I liked about it:  the depiction of a sort of "culture" developed by the gulag inmates that helped them not only survive but live with ethics, goals.

The Physicists by Friedrich Durrenmatt
Publisher's description:  "The Physicists is a provocative and darkly comic satire about life in modern times, by one of Europe's foremost dramatists and author of the internationally celebrated The Visit.  The world's greatest physicist, Johann Wilhelm Mobius, is in a madhouse, haunted by recurring visions of King Solomon.  He is kept company by two other equally deluded scientists:  one who thinks he is Einstein, another who believes he is Newton.  It soon becomes evident, however, that these three are not as harmlessly lunatic as they appear.  Are they, in fact, really mad?  Or are they playing some murderous game, with the world as the stake?  For Mobius has uncovered the mystery of the universe--and therefore the key to its destruction--and Einstein and Newton are vying for this secret that would enable them to rule the earth.  Added to this treacherous combination is the world-renowned psychiatrist in charge, the hunchbacked Mathilde von Zahnd, who has some diabolical plans of her own... With wry, penetrating humor, The Physicists probes beneath the surface of modern existence and, like Marat/Sade, questions whether it is the mad who are the truly insane."  What I liked about it:  the sense of urgency underneath the silly farce.  A scientist insists that the relationship of modern society to science is like that of a customer to a prostitute--we want to make use of it, but we're not interested in where it came from or how it works.  

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Publisher's description:  "Slaughterhouse-Five is one of the world's great antiwar books.  An American classic.  Centering on the infamous firebombing of Dresden, Billy Pilgrim's odyssey through time reflects the mythic journey of our own fractured lives as we search for meaning in what we fear most."  What I liked about it:  Vonnegut skillfully weaves two narrative threads--the Dresden bombings and Billy's postwar life and mental unravelling--which together convey absolute outrage at all wars. 

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman
Publisher's description:  "A modern classic, Einstein's Dreams is a fictional collage of stories dreamed by Albert Einstein in 1905, when he worked in a patent office in Switzerland.  As a defiant but sensitive young genius is creating his theory of relativity, a new conception of time, he imagines many possible worlds.  In one, time is circular, so that people are fated to repeat triumphs and failures over and over.  In another, there is a place, visited by lovers and parents clinging to their children, where time stands still.  In yet another, time is a nightingale, sometimes trapped by a bell jar.  Now translated into thirty languages, Einstein's Dreams has inspired playwrights, dancers, musicians, and painters all over the world.  In its poetic vignettes, it explores the connections between science and art, the process of creativity, and ultimately the fragility of human existence."  What I liked about it:  Wonderfully imaginative mini-stories.  And the fact that they remind me strongly of Borges' stories. 

Lavinia by Ursula K. LeGuin
Publisher's description:  "In The Aeneid, Vergil's hero fights to claim the king's daughter, Lavinia, with whom he is destined to found an empire.  Lavinia herself never speaks a word.  Now, Ursula K. LeGuin gives Lavinia a voice in a novel that takes us to the half-wild world of ancient Italy, when Rome was a muddy village near seven hills.  Lavinia grows up knowing nothing but peace and freedom, until suitors come.  Her mother wants her to marry handsome, ambitious Turnus.  But omens and prophecies spoken by the sacred springs say she must marry a foreigner--and that her husband will not live long.  When a fleet of Trojan ships sails up the Tiber, Lavinia decides to take her destiny into her own hands.  And so she tells us what Vergil did not:  the story of her life, and the love of her life."  What I liked about it:  the character of Lavinia.  She is presented as a fictional character who knows that she doesn't really exist, except in the mind of her creator, Vergil, whose gentle communications with her are quite touching. 

Possession, A Romance by A. S. Byatt
Publisher's description:  "Winner of England's Booker Prize and the literary sensation of the year, Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story.  It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets.  As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire--from spiritualist seances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany--what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas."  What I liked about it:  a large portion of the book is comprised of the Victorian poets' works.  Byatt didn't just invent some poets, she apparently composed a body of work for each one and included it in the book.  And it's really good.  It's what I enjoyed most about Possession

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