Kamouraska – Anne Hébert

I am generally not into the whole “trapped, sad wife in olden times” genre. Edith Wharton is the only writer who has managed to make that story palatable for me, and it’s on the strength of her writing and the fact that her female characters are generally decent people or very entertainingly terrible people (see Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, one of my favorite books of all time).

But Kamouraska was everything that I wished those books were. It is translated from the French, but even with the language barrier Hébert’s voice as a writer comes through. She writes Elisabeth’s story in fits and starts, seamlessly transitioning between scenes from her idyllic childhood, her disastrous marriage to an alcoholic squire, her passionate affair with an American doctor and their plot to murder her husband, and her current quiet life as a wife and mother.

It seems like these types of books often either one of two ways: 1) the woman and her lover end up together happily ever after, or 2) one of them dies or commits suicide. Kamouraska ends with neither, and provides no real closure. It’s another example of how it is such a refreshing entry in the genre.

The Problems of Philosophy – Bertrand Russell

I was a philosophy minor in college, and I’ve been meaning to go back and read a lot of foundational texts on the subject for awhile now. Russell’s book seemed like a good place to start, as it provides basic context on the major “problems” of philosophy. I first read the “problems” in the title as actual problems, i.e. the things that philosophy gets wrong, but it’s “problems” as the challenges that all philosophy grapples with, mostly the concepts surrounding knowledge and how we know what we know.

It’s probably too simple for someone who knows a lot about the basics of philosophy, but it was a great refresher for me and gave me some good ideas of texts to read next.

The Doorman – Reinaldo Arenas

I love magical realism. I discovered Borges and Calvino in college and fell in love with them. I saw Arenas’ book on a list of magical realism novels somewhere and looked for it for ages, and I was so excited when I found it at a used bookstore.

This book was so disappointing. The thing that makes Borges and Calvino and Murakami and other fantastic magical realism authors so good is that their “magic” does not feel magical for the sake of being magical. It follows some kind of logic, however twisted, and it propels the story, and it feels like it could be something that actually happens, even though it’s impossible. Arenas’ book felt magical for the sake of being magical. The first half of the book dedicates brief chapters to each of the wacky tenants of a ritzy New York apartment building and – here’s the kooky twist – their animals, who include an orangutan, stuffed dogs, and a group of dancing chihuahuas. The second half of the book connects the doorman to the animals who, it turns out, can talk and need his help plotting an escape.

It all becomes kind of exhausting, trying to keep track of which animal has which weird power and how the tenants interact with each other and what the doorman has to do with any of this, and it’s just not worth the trouble.

The Sound of the Mountain – Yasunari Kawabata

This was my fourth Kawabata book – the other three were Thousand CranesSnow Country, and House of the Sleeping Beauties. As a writer, he snuck up on me. I enjoyed Thousand Cranes, but I didn’t necessarily intend to read a lot of his work. Over the years I’ve purchased his books when I see them at used bookstores, and I’ve ended up reading one every winter. His writing is perfect for winter. It is quiet and understated and simple. Many of his stories take place in winter, and those that take place over longer periods often include descriptive passages about the seasons.

The Sound of the Mountain is the longest book of his that I’ve read, and it felt like the most complete in terms of the depth of its characters and its story. At its most basic level, it is a story about a dysfunctional family and its quiet elderly patriarch, but it’s much more than that. It’s about the sorrow of getting older, the agony of determining your legacy, and the realization that you cannot be responsible for the choices of others.

January 2016

One month down and I’ve read seven books. I didn’t do full posts on most of them (already a bad blogger), but some thoughts below.

The Sound of the Mountain – Yasunari Kawabata

This was my fourth Kawabata book – the other three were Thousand CranesSnow Country, and House of the Sleeping Beauties. As a writer, he snuck up on me. I enjoyed Thousand Cranes, but I didn’t necessarily intend to read a lot of his work. Over the years I’ve purchased his books when I see them at used bookstores, and I’ve ended up reading one every winter. His writing is perfect for winter. It is quiet and understated and simple. Many of his stories take place in winter, and those that take place over longer periods often include descriptive passages about the seasons.

The Sound of the Mountain is the longest book of his that I’ve read, and it felt like the most complete in terms of the depth of its characters and its story. At its most basic level, it is a story about a dysfunctional family and its quiet elderly patriarch, but it’s much more than that. It’s about the sorrow of getting older, the agony of determining your legacy, and the realization that you cannot be responsible for the choices of others.

The Doorman – Reinaldo Arenas

I love magical realism. I discovered Borges and Calvino in college and fell in love with them. I saw Arenas’ book on a list of magical realism novels somewhere and looked for it for ages, and I was so excited when I found it at a used bookstore.

This book was so disappointing. The thing that makes Borges and Calvino and Murakami and other fantastic magical realism authors so good is that their “magic” does not feel magical for the sake of being magical. It follows some kind of logic, however twisted, and it propels the story, and it feels like it could be something that actually happens, even though it’s impossible. Arenas’ book felt magical for the sake of being magical. The first half of the book dedicates brief chapters to each of the wacky tenants of a ritzy New York apartment building and – here’s the kooky twist – their animals, who include an orangutan, stuffed dogs, and a group of dancing chihuahuas. The second half of the book connects the doorman to the animals who, it turns out, can talk and need his help plotting an escape.

It all becomes kind of exhausting, trying to keep track of which animal has which weird power and how the tenants interact with each other and what the doorman has to do with any of this, and it’s just not worth the trouble.

The Problems of Philosophy – Bertrand Russell

I was a philosophy minor in college, and I’ve been meaning to go back and read a lot of foundational texts on the subject for awhile now. Russell’s book seemed like a good place to start, as it provides basic context on the major “problems” of philosophy. I first read the “problems” in the title as actual problems, i.e. the things that philosophy gets wrong, but it’s “problems” as the challenges that all philosophy grapples with, mostly the concepts surrounding knowledge and how we know what we know.

It’s probably too simple for someone who knows a lot about the basics of philosophy, but it was a great refresher for me and gave me some good ideas of texts to read next.

Kamouraska – Anne Hébert

I am generally not into the whole “trapped, sad wife in olden times” genre. Edith Wharton is the only writer who has managed to make that story palatable for me, and it’s on the strength of her writing and the fact that her female characters are generally decent people or very entertainingly terrible people (see Undine Spragg in The Custom of the Country, one of my favorite books of all time).

But Kamouraska was everything that I wished those books were. It is translated from the French, but even with the language barrier Hébert’s voice as a writer comes through. She writes Elisabeth’s story in fits and starts, seamlessly transitioning between scenes from her idyllic childhood, her disastrous marriage to an alcoholic squire, her passionate affair with an American doctor and their plot to murder her husband, and her current quiet life as a wife and mother.

It seems like these types of books often either one of two ways: 1) the woman and her lover end up together happily ever after, or 2) one of them dies or commits suicide. Kamouraska ends with neither, and provides no real closure. It’s another example of how it is such a refreshing entry in the genre.

Full pages on the other three January books here: