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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Good Friday Riffs, Your New White Hair

April 18, 2014 | by

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry.

It took me twenty-five years to read Jane Eyre. The first twenty-four and three quarters were tough going—I almost never made it past the death of the annoying Christian schoolmate. Rochester drove me up the wall; so did passive-aggressive Jane. Then a couple of months ago a friend gave me a beat-up old pocketbook edition. This time it took. When I realized a couple of pages were missing, I read them on my phone. When the paperback got lost in the coatroom at Café Loup, I started taking my iPad to bed (a reluctant first). When the same friend presented me with a Folio edition giveaway, weighing sixteen pounds (with regrettable illustrations), I took it everywhere, in case I had half an hour alone. I was warned that things go downhill after you-know-who appears in the night and tears Jane’s you-know-what. Not for me. The weirder the subplot, the more Jane tightened her grip. What had changed? Maybe certain writers—Norman Rush, Defoe, Dickens, Melville, Hawthorne—or maybe just reading in general had taught me that dialogue can come in weird shapes, not just tit-for-tat, and that soliloquies can happen on the page. Maybe I’ve just gotten to know more women, like Jane, who live at war with themselves, and maybe the freakiness of wanting and hating to be bossed around makes more sense to me now. The whole time, I kept thinking, So many girls read this when they’re kids—and get it. How could it take so long to catch up? —Lorin Stein

Reading a László Krasznahorkai novel is a major commitment, and the kind I’m willing to make, but I haven’t had the time lately to devote myself to it. I’ve made do with the London Review of Books’ recent story “There Goes Valzer.” A man named Róbert Valzer who likes walking (“not that I have anything do to with the famous Robert Walser”) takes an aimless stroll on the Day of the Dead in his La Sportiva boots, through cemeteries and out to the edge of town. Because of its brevity and relatively short sentences, the story offers an opportunity to better appreciate Krasznahorkai’s sly humor, often camouflaged by his melancholic themes. Not that there isn’t disillusionment here, but it’s tempered by a ready absurdity: “I hate Michaelmas daisies and, I must confess, I am not too keen on people either, in fact you might say I hate people too, or, better still, that I hate people as much as I hate Michaelmas daisies and that is simply because every time I see Michaelmas daisies they remind me of people rather than of Michaelmas daisies, and every time I see people I always think of Michaelmas daisies not of people.” (Yes, that is a short sentence—for Krasznahorkai.) —Nicole Rudick

This unending winter—and the moods that have come with it—has reminded many Americans, brutally, of the effect the environment has on our psyches. It’s a theme I haven't encountered in a work of American fiction in recent memory, though I wonder, with our rapidly changing earth, if we’ll begin to see it reflected more in our country's creative output. The seasons and their regularities, their whims have figured prominently in Japanese art for many centuries, though, and Takashi Hiraide's The Guest Cat, recently translated by Eric Selland, is a new cornerstone in this tradition. A short novel about little more than the comings and goings of a neighborhood cat around the grounds and home of a childless couple, the swells and lags in the emotional narrative of the book are propelled by a rising temperature, a blooming flower, a drooping tree. It’s reassuring to feel that perhaps a close tie between one's mental state and the weather may be, in fact, quite natural. —Clare Fentress

Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson is a bit like Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries: there’s an entry for almost every season, holiday, or time of the year. Reading Boswell’s Life, it’s hard not to think of it at times as a practical joke; Boswell’s silliness is the great enigma of this book. Just to see what he would say, Boswell would ask Johnson questions like “What would you do if you were locked in a tower with a newborn baby?” The entry for Good Friday, 1778, contains so much: a discussion of literary aestheticism and didacticism, of the usefulness that literature can have to society, of the etiquette of making small talk. And it’s full of the usual yuks from the Boswell-Johnson buddy act:

Johnson: “Sir, it would have been better that I had been of a profession. I ought to have been a lawyer.”

Boswell: “I do not think, Sir, it would have been better, for we should not have had the English dictionary.”

Johnson: “But you would have had reports.” —Anna Heyward

I remember the first time I watched The Shining. My hands covered my eyes through half of the film: I saw a flash of room 237, a rotting corpse embracing Jack Nicholson, a flood of blood. “Here’s Johnny!” echoed through my basement. While I didn’t fully comprehend Kubrick’s handiwork at the time, I recognized there was more to the film than its horror/ghost story surface would have you believe. The Native American burial ground (genocide?); the furniture appearing and disappearing (ghosts, madness?); the photo of the July 4th Ball that closes the film (American imperialism?). What a relief it was to watch Rodney Ascher’s documentary Room 237 and realize I was not alone! It’s easy to dismiss many of the ideas here as over-analysis or conspiracy theories—watching the film forward and backward at the same time is my favorite. One theory contends that Kubrick directed the Apollo 11 moon landing. But there’s something beautiful in a documentary about people going crazy over a film about people going crazy. I think the documentary’s assistant editor, Gordon Stainforth, sufficiently got across my thoughts on the film: “The sum of what we learn refuses to add up neatly.” —Justin Alvarez

In the wake of this week’s ferry accident in South Korea—an accident that’s offering no end of tragedy—I came across a harrowing article on the foundering of the Estonia in September 1994. Proceed with caution—it’s almost mathematical in its recounting of the chaos and disorientation of maritime disaster: “Survival that night was a very tight race, and savagely simple. People who started early and moved fast had some chance of winning. People who started late or hesitated for any reason had no chance at all. Action paid. Contemplation did not.” —Stephen Hiltner

I recently had a dream where all my friends had gone gray. They weren’t any different besides that, though everybody was behaving a bit differently, or trying to figure out if they were supposed to behave differently. I think I dreamed this because I read Eileen Myles’s poem “Peanut Butter” a year ago, where she writes, “I’m immoderately in love with you, knocked out by your new white hair.” I saved that line in a notebook I just filled, so I saw it again and read the poem again. I still like it, but I’m inaugurating my new one with “During my life I was a woman with hazel eyes,” because it’s weird, and I’ll want it again next winter. —Zack Newick

 

1 COMMENT

1 Comments

  1. Josephine Wang | April 19, 2014 at 12:06 pm

    Now, read Villette!
    Everybody knows Jane Eyre, but Charlotte Brontë’s greatest and most original novel was her last, Villette.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/10547414/Why-Villette-is-better-than-Jane-Eyre.html

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