a reader

an eudæmonistreading

2023

February

André Laks, Glenn W. Most, et al., ed. and trans. Early Greek Philosophy III: Early Ionian Thinkers Part 2. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP (Loeb), 2016 (ca. a rather long time ago). [27]
Early Greek philosophers were clearly asking the important questions: ‘For he himself [sc. Xenophones] says that god is a body, whether he means by that this totality or something else; for if he were bodiless, how could he be spherical?’ (R14, from Ps-Aristotle). More seriously, an interesting volume centered on two weird thinkers – Xenophanes and Heraclitus. Again, the editorial choices (ponderous cross-references, exhaustive [exhausting] anthologies of reception, peculiar numbering conventions) suggest that the intended reader of this volume is probably not the ‘common reader’; the introductory volume, although intended to prepare the reader for this, really does not adequately convey its extent. (This is recreational complaining, because I am reading this book while half asleep in the morning: these are doubtless points that would not trouble more alert readers.)
Jessa Crispin. My Three Dads: Patriarchy on the Great Plains. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2022. [26]
Somewhat irritable book on violence and lack of solidarity. Doesn’t quite tie together – a bit too much of the unthought, the unsaid. Implications and insinuations, but little that is solid. Chaotic neutral.
Anna DeForest. A History of Present Illness. New York: Little, Brown and Co., 2022. [25.d]*
‘And I thought of something I’d read somewhere: The world was made from nothing, and the nothingness shows through. But that’s not what I told her’ (from ‘Complicated Grief’). Not cold or clinical but not warm, either. Almost alchemical, a sort of ouroboros, in which the ‘present-absent with swift motion slide’.

January

Tarjei Vesaas. The Hills Reply. trans. Elizabeth Rokkan. New York: Archipelago, 2019 (1968; trans. 1971, as The Boat in the Evening). [24.d]*
Swaying from a less humorous Beckettian bleakness to the prim precision of the ‘national’ literature. Dark, spare. ‘The things one says usually seem to be left lying about on the floor like a pair of lopsided shoes – while the things one wanted to say feel like birds in flight’ (from ‘Words, Words’).
Sylvia Townsend Warner. Lolly Willowes. New York: NYRB Classics, 1999 (1926). [23]
An excellent example of the relative weights of narrative time.
Thomas Merton. Thoughts in Solitude. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011 (1956, 1958). [22.d]*
‘Sinners have a very keen eye for false virtues and a very exacting idea of what virtue should be in a good man’ (Section 1, ch. iv).
Sigrid Nunez. What Are You Going Through. narrated by Hillary Huber. New York: Riverhead/Penguin Audio, 2020. [21.a]*
‘Those writers who believe that the way they write is more important than whatever they may write about, these are the only writers I want to read any more, the only ones who can lift me up’ (part 3, chapter 1; punctuation a guess based on the reader’s pauses).
Yiyun Li. Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. New York: Random House, 2010. [20.d]*
On the tensions of imbalanced desire (not always romantic/sexual). ‘They were lonely and sad people, all three of them, and they would not make one another less sad, but they could, with great care, make a world that would accommodate their loneliness’ (end of title story).
André Laks, Glenn W. Most, et al., ed. and trans. Early Greek Philosophy II: Beginnings and Early Ionian Thinkers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP (Loeb), 2016 (ca. a rather long time ago). [19]
A useful collection of material, with an editorial structure that makes the US government look efficient: it is possible to try to do too much (tho’ thinking about it, it does seem to lean on Diogenes Laertius for organizational principles, which… well, it’s a choice).
Epictetus. The Complete Works: Handbook, Discourses & Fragments. trans. Robin Waterfield. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2022 (2nd C. CE). [18]
‘You’re a pathetic little soul sustaining a corpse, as Epictetus used to say’ (Fragment 26, p. 364).
Epictetus. Discourses, Fragments, Handbook. trans. Robin Hard. Oxford: OUP, 2014 (2nd C. CE). [17]
‘You’re a little soul carrying a corpse around, as Epictetus used to say’ (Fragment 26, p. 286).
Marvin W. Meyer, trans. The Secret Teachings of Jesus: Four Gnostic Gospels. New York: Vintage, 1986 (ca. 2nd–5th C. CE; 1984). [16]
‘The Secret Book of John’ is deeply weird, and the other three are rather dull.
Leslie A. Marchand, ed. ‘Alas! the Love of Women!’: Byron’s Letters and Journals, vol. 3, 1813–1814. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1974. [15]
‘I wish I could settle to reading again,—my life is monotonous, and yet desultory. I take up books, and fling them down again’ (p. 209; journal entry Nov. 17, 1813).
Joanna Walsh. Worlds from the Word’s End. London: And Other Stories, 2017. [14]*
Uncanny and a bit mechanical.
Emma Reyes. The Book of Emma Reyes. trans. Daniel Alarcón. New York: Penguin, 2017 (2012). [13.d]*
Powerful presentation of narrative voice from a child’s perspective, telling a very dark story. One of the better random library finds.
Sylvia Molloy. Dislocations. trans. Jennifer Croft. Edinburgh: Charco Press, 2022 (2010). [12.d]*
‘When talking to her I feel – or I felt – connected to a past that is not entirely illusory. And with a place: that of before. Now I find myself speaking in a void: there is no longer a home, no longer a before. Only an echo chamber’ (p. 78).
James Runcie. Tell Me Good Things. London: Bloomsbury, 2022. [11.d]*
‘I have a theory that crime writing has displaced religion in the West to become the secular space in which we address our deepest fears and anxieties’ (p. 218).
Christian Wiman. He Held Radical Light. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018. [10]*
The problem with most writers of a theological bent (whom I have read) is that they tend not to be able to communicate the ‘oceanic feeling’ – they’ve heard that it exists, they fully believe in it, but they tend not to be able to transfer that impression (faith? feeling?) to the reader. It comes across as a remembered view from a drawing room window, with the curtains mostly drawn. Doubt tends to be more interesting, more persuasive, because one hears the roar of the boundless.
D. Vance Smith. Arts of Dying: Literature and Finitude in Medieval England. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2020. [9]
A surprisingly light and amusing look at a rather dark topic. Enlivened by the whimsies of medieval logic (one cannot talk of the dead because they do not exist, because they are dead, so how does one talk about them?). Also: ‘Prose is the language that lies beyond the world, where being is uncontaminated by unperfected forms; it is a reminder of the desire for form and the hope of its disclosure. Yet prose is where the stuttering conversation with the earth becomes pure language’ (p. 218).
Gwendoline Riley. My Phantoms. narrated by Hannah Curtis. New York: NYRB/Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2022. [8.a]*
Unhappy people behaving badly. The reader is supposed, perhaps, to be as haunted as the narrator, but structural weaknesses (mostly false-ringing images) make the narrative unpleasantly crumbly – although that could be intentional. Ernaux might be a better guide to the same territory.
Can Xue. Mystery Train. trans. Natascha Bruce. Seattle: Sublunary, 2022 (2016). [7]
A distressing chronicle of the unhappy journey from alienation to dystopia (one that also invites descriptors such as ‘hallucinatory’ or ‘phantasmagoric’).
Marion Woodman. The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa, and the Repressed Feminine. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1980. [6]
Think what you like about Jungian analysis, it does give an interesting framework for thinking about psychological distress.
Perhat Tursun. The Backstreets: A Novel from Xinjiang. trans. Darren Byler and Anonymous. New York: Columbia UP, 2022 (2015). [5]*
Captures the dreariness of being an outsider; hallucinatory and horrible. Well worth reading.
Erich Fromm. To Have or To Be? New York: Open Road Media, 2013 (1976). [4.d]*
Perhaps five pages of ideas lightly spread throughout a two hundred page book; they are not bad ideas (and his proposed solutions are not entirely wrong-headed), but the book as a whole is not particularly tight: ‘Among other facts, this suggests that literacy is by no means the blessing it is advertised to be, especially when people use it merely to read material that impoverishes their capacity to experience and to imagine’ (Part II, section 2: Remembering). Might appeal, in a way, to fans of Byung-Chul Han, although Fromm is at once more humane and more patronizing.
Daniela Cascella. Chimeras. Seattle, WA: Sublunary, 2022. [3]
An odd book, not so much a conversation as an imagined polyphony. Reminded me, curiously, of Andrei Rublev, but I think that is mostly the recurring bell.
Marit Kapla. Osebol: Voices from a Swedish Village. trans. Peter Graves. London: Penguin, 2021 (2019). [2]
A portrait of village over time, in the tradition of Akenfield (1969) or Studs Terkel; charming in its omission of filler text linking the interviews together or providing additional description. The layout, while giving the words of the respondents weight, also made the book physically much larger than it needed to be.
Marie-Louise von Franz. Alchemy: An Introduction to the Symbolism and the Psychology. Toronto: Inner City Books, 2019 (1959, 1980). [1]
A set of nine lectures on alchemical texts and their symbolism, with an emphasis on the potential application for Jungian psychoanalysis. Delightful and strange.

(last revised: 3 February 2023)

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