Friday Reads: November 2021

Curated by ELLY HONG

 

This month’s round of Friday Reads features recommendations that span place and time: from interwar Greece to eighteenth-century London to a small-holding in present day Ireland. Read on to see what our Issue 22 contributors have been enjoying.

Recommendations: The Third Wedding by Costas Taktsis, The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon, Please by Christopher Meredith, Trivia: Or the Art of Walking the Streets of London by John Gay, and Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth

Cover of The Third Wedding by Costas Taktsis, featuring black and white minimalist drawings of five women

Costas Taktsis’s The Third Wedding, translated by Leslie Finer; recommended by Steven Tagle (Issue 22 contributor)

Costas Taktsis’s novel The Third Wedding was recommended to me as a book that would help me understand Greek mentality and culture, and it remains one of my all-time favorites. The novel begins mid-rant, as Nina, an Athenian woman, screams to the heavens about the rebellious daughter from her first marriage: “How long must I put up with her, see her horrid face, hear her voice, how long, Oh Lord, how long? Surely there must be some misguided Christian who’d want to take her? Somebody to take this monstrous freak of nature off my hands, this souvenir her father left to avenge himself? Damn those who stopped me having the abortion!”

Taktsis’s novel is a masterclass in voice. Reminiscent of the outsized emotions of Greek tragedy and peppered with devilishly clever insults, Nina’s tirade sets the stage for this passionate novel about enduring family ties and enmities. The story takes place mainly during the interwar period and the German Occupation of Greece during World War II, detailing the events that propelled Nina through three marriages. In dual, first-person narration, equal parts gossip and philosophy, Nina and her friend Hecabe share their most personal secrets, trials, and tribulations, sparing no one, especially not their husbands and children.

I was captivated by Taktsis’s live-wire female protagonists, just as I’ve been captivated by so many Greeks who seem to have an innate sense of drama and a gift for storytelling. Fighting to keep their families together, Nina and Hecabe’s stories wring humor from these difficult years in Greece’s history, demonstrating the resilience and lust for life that, for me, have become synonymous with the Greek psyche.

 

Cover of The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon, showing a gray dog sitting and looking at a bone in front of him

Aleksandar Hemon’s The Question of Bruno; recommended by Hiten Samtani (Issue 22 contributor)

Sasha Hemon shows that ​​there are basically no limits on the power of descriptive language. That you can go as deep as you like, as metaphor-drenched as you like, and be as much of a bastard as you like when it comes to how you see the world. He’ll take the reader through seven footnote-filled decades of internecine family strife just to set the scene for a family feast, or chronicle an old man licking his lips as if it were a rare gymnastic feat. In someone else’s hands this tendency could be maddening, could render a book unreadable. But Hemon in The Question of Bruno makes it work, because he’s just so damn good.

I read the book during a second, extended trip to Sarajevo, making it all the more visceral. The Balkan gluttony, the penchant for grand pronouncements, the curse-gift of finding humor in darkness: “Moreover, women kept mismarrying, while men kept falling from trees and being gored by disobedient cattle,” Hemon notes in “Exchange of Pleasant Words,” one of the most original short stories I’ve ever read. Another highlight is “A Coin,” a tale of a warzone told through a series of letters between a guy who got out and a girl who didn’t. Even the stories that might not work for you are worth reading all the way through, if just for the pleasures he offers at the sentence level. I, for example, couldn’t find my way into one of the marquee stories in the collection, “Blind Jozef Pronek & Dead Souls.” I kept getting lost, until I found myself staring at this line: “On the pavement, all over the city there were roses—the points of the shell impact. A tiny crater and a few straight lines, of uneven length, like sun rays on a child’s drawing.”

 

Cover of Please by Christopher Meredith, which shows a comma in the center of a dull blue background

Christopher Meredith’s Please; recommended by Carin Clevidence (Issue 22 contributor)

I’ve always loved reading work by writers from other countries, and the particular pleasure of being transported through language to an unfamiliar place. Just before the start of the pandemic I began reading Christopher Meredith, a contemporary Welsh novelist and poet, author of Griffri, The Book of Idiots, Brief Lives, and others. His most recent novel Please, published this year, is narrated by an octogenarian amateur sailor obsessed with language named Vernon Jones. I was hooked from the first sentence: “Punctuation killed my wife.”

In a darkly funny, meandering, auto-didactically erudite voice, Vernon tells us of his love for Hannah, the ups and downs of their marriage, his affection for the letter V. The story, meaty and layered, is studded with insights and unexpected turns. There is sex and betrayal, work, loss, existential loneliness, ambition, grammar, “the stuff of life that both hardens and softens us.” The writing is an utter delight, the work of a master enjoying his facility with words.

Toward the end of the book, musing on etymological connections between the words for love and care in English, Welsh, and Latin, Vernon says, “We have here some slight sign of the cousinage of tongues, of those webs of concepts and associations, somehow spun by many purblind spiders in a fumbling darkness crawling insensibly over and among one another without sense of precedence or order, which occasionally gleam in flitting daylights upon our understanding as they intersect and bifurcate. Fleetingly we behold how words in these trembling threads attempt…to ensnare the mysterious stuff of life.” This stunningly good book does just that.

 

Cover of John Gay's Trivia, which shows an eighteenth century style illustration of two keys

John Gay’s Trivia: Or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, recommended by J. Kates (Issue 22 contributor)

Flâneur is a French word from Normandy, adopted to describe a certain kind of walker in the city—more than an idler, but one whose purpose is observation and recording the life around. We associate the word with middle-class Paris in the nineteenth century, but the occupation must be as old as city life itself, and first bursts into English literature with John Gay’s Trivia: Or the Art of Walking the Streets of London, originally published in 1716, but which I have in an elegant 1922 limited edition picked up for peanuts in a second-hand bookshop in 1973, and keep returning to for inspiration and solace.

John Gay is best known for his political satires, including The Beggar’s Opera (which he wrote with the composer John Rich—it was said that its success made Rich gay and Gay rich.) But Trivia is a gentler book than that, teeming with real urban life. I always like to contrast the below passage with Wordsworth’s “Westminster Bridge,” composed a hundred years later: 

. . . For ease and for dispatch, the morning’s best:
No tides of passengers the street molest.
You’ll see a draggled damsel, here and there,
From Billingsgate her fishy traffic bear;
On doors the sallow milk-maid chalks her gains;
Ah! how unlike the milk-maid of the plains!
Before proud gates attending asses bray,
Or arrogate with solemn pace the way;
These grave physicians with their milky cheer,
The love-sick maid, and dwindling beau repair;
Here rows of drummers stand in martial file,
And with their vellum-thunder shake the pile,
To greet the new-made bride. Are sounds like these, 
The proper prelude to a state of peace?
Now industry awakes her busy sons,
Full charged with news the breathless hawker runs:
Shops open, coaches roll, carts shake the ground,
And all the streets with passing cries resound. . . .

 

Cover of Savage Gods by Paul Kingsnorth, which shows an abstract drawing of a droplet and a flame

Paul Kingsnorth’s Savage Gods; recommended by Natasha Burge (Issue 22 contributor)

In Savage Gods, writer Paul Kingsnorth moves with his family to a small-holding in Ireland, where he hopes to find the rooted sense of belonging he has sought all his life. To his surprise, he instead finds that his writing begins to fail him. As Kingsnorth pays deep attention to the landscape around him, he contemplates identity, place, and belonging—and the way their interconnected roots both beguile and elude us.

Drifting elegantly in brief, fragmented passages, Savage Gods journeys through memoir into meditations on environmentalism, myth, and poetry. The ideas of other writers are explored, including D.H. Lawrence, Patrick Kavanagh, and Martin Shaw, while conversations with Norse gods and messages from Roman gods also appear. Even as Kingsnorth worries that “all words are lies,” his prose is taut, aching with a quiet melancholy. Wondering if it was, in fact, the development of language itself that severed the link between human culture and nature, he asks: “Could I write like myth, like an intuition, like an animal hunting, a cloud skimming, could I write from the shores of the boiling lake, is there truth down there and can it ever be planted in symbols on a page?”

With the frustration of a writer who is losing faith in his own writing, Kingsnorth buries himself in the work of his small-holding. His nature writing is elemental, as he approaches the earth, birdsong, trees, a barking dog, the moon. Touching on his understanding of “the Machine,” the tragedy that has made “both our poetry and our culture rotten,” Kingsnorth concludes that until the wild roots of poetry are restored, “there is no hope for civilization.”

Savage Gods is a book of conscious contradiction that asks questions rather than provide answers. It is full of despair but also full of hope, and it is a testament to Kingsnorth’s ability as a writer that the two do not seem juxtaposed, rather cyclical and irrevocably linked. This book is not a call to action, not a call to anything, really, but the questions Kingsnorth asks, and his courage to avoid easy answers, makes it feel like it could be the first step of a journey that has been a long time coming.

 

Friday Reads: November 2021

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