Thursday, July 9, 2015

Summer Reading

Does anyone actually go to a beach in the summertime to read? More likely the cabin in the woods, at least in this part of the country. In any case, it's a handy trope for gathering together a list of reading suggestions for idle summer evenings. Here are a few of mine.

Bears: a Brief History, by Bernt Brunner (Yale, 2007)

Everyone likes to talk about bears. And it seems everyone has a few bear stories to tell, though most of them center around unseen bears that wreck the bird feeder or a fear of lurking bears that, in the end, never show up. In this slim volume Brunner, a German, has gathered together a wide variety of information (and misinformation) from around the world about the animal that most closely resembles us—ursa major. The book is crisply written and rich in both folklore and historic illustrations. Opening it at random we come upon sentences like this one:

The moon was shining the night in January 1856 when Leopold von Schrenck, a Russian-German zoologist, geographer, and cultural anthropologist, and Carl Maximowicz, his colleague and illustrator, reached Tebach, a village in easternmost Siberia...

Easy to pick up, and easy to put down, Bears is a perfect woodland summer read.

The Witness of Combines, by Kent Meyers (Minnesota, 1998)

Meyers lost his father at age sixteen, and he lost the family farm near Sleep Eye, Minnesota, the next year because his father was no longer there to manage it. It was a sad time for Kent, though he didn't shed a tear until three years later, when he began to write about it. 

His descriptions of canning tomatoes, chatting about roses with grandma, fixing the hammermill, picking rocks from the fields every spring, watching cuddly little chicks grow up to become his father's birthday dinner, and other farm events, are vivid. 

He occasionally ends a chapter by spelling out simple notions that he's already conveyed effectively in images and sentiments, but such passages are rare and easily forgiven. Kent is trying to illuminate the bonds, and also the empty spaces, that develop between father and son, while at the same time conveying how rich an attachment to a piece of land can be, regardless of the labor involved—perhaps because of the labor involved.

The Strange Case of the Rickety Cossack and other Cautionary Tales from Human Evolution, by Ian Tattersall (Macmillan 2015)

It seems a week seldom goes by without some paleoarcheologist unearthing pieces of a skeleton that doesn't have an obvious place on the Hominidae family tree. Tattersall reviews the history of the field, reminding us of names we haven't heard since high school—Peking Man, Java Man, Piltdown Man—and tries to explain why it's been so difficult to modernize the nomenclature of the various branches of the evolutionary tree to more clearly suggest that homo sapiens is only one of many, rather than the final product of a single inevitable progression. Along the way he gives us detailed accounts of the most recent theories regarding the mechanisms by which life continues to develop, which are considerably more complicated (and poorly understood, even by the experts) than we tend to think.    

Ardor, by Roberto Calasso (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)

Calasso has been writing about "the sacrifice" since 1984 at least (see The Ruin of Kasch) and in Ardor he returns to that theme, taking on an explication of the collection of pre-Hindu sacrificial hymns and rituals called the Vedas.

The Vedic sacrifice was "an attempt to redress a balance that had been upset and violated forever" when humans began to kill and eat other animals. However, Vedic sacrifice was designed to exalt the act of killing and eating, rather than expiate the guilt associated with it. In any case, it took several forms: sometimes an intellectual dispute, and at other times merely the pouring of a few tablespoons of fresh milk on a carefully laid household fire to the accompaniment of ritual verses, some of them intentionally mumbled, others spoken aloud. A sacrificial plant, perhaps hallucinogenic, was also part of the scheme.

The book is riddled with both arcane information about the ancient Aryans and oracular pronouncements about the seams and fractures of life itself. For example, at one point Calasso takes up the evidently important issue of why a man should not be naked in the presence of the cow. At another he informs us how, in Vedic lore, the four phases of a household fire—first lit, burning, blazing, and reduced to embers—correspond to the divine forms Rudra, Varuna, Indra, and Mitra. 

In a later chapter, he explores the interrelationships described in various Vedic hymns between the Self (ātman), the "I" (aham), awareness (citta), intention (saṃkalpa), knowledge (veda), meditation (dhyana), and discernment (vijñāna).

Along the way he offers references to Parmenides, Schopenhauer, Kafka, and Ignatius of Loyola, among other thinkers, to clarify similarities and (more often) differences between Vedic and Western concepts.

Readers may find it difficult to keep their bearings in the midst of all the digressions, elaborations, and asides. But anyone who has enjoyed Calasso's previous books will be familiar with this method of criss-crossing the landscape of a foreign time and culture. (A more detailed review of Ardor is forthcoming in Rain Taxi Magazine.)

Time Ages in a Hurry, by Antonio Tabucchi (Archipelago, 2015)

Tabucchi is a master story-teller with a vast range of experience, and settling into this collection may remind readers of the pleasure they once took reading Henry James, Chekhov, or Proust.
The "method" of the collection might well be taken from the story "Between Generals":

I've come to realize one thing, that stories are always bigger than we are, they happen to us and we are their protagonists without realizing it, but in the stories we live, we aren't the true protagonists, the true protagonist is the story itself.

The stories this volume aren't thinly veiled autobiography, in short, but well-structured, keenly imagined narratives set in New York, Switzerland, Italy, Croatia, and other locales. The common theme, if there is one, is aging. I don't mean decrepitude, but various forms of awareness that eventually life just runs out. Thus, in one story a man visiting a botanical garden feels a tramontana breeze that sets off some speculations:

He thought of the winds of life, because there are winds that accompany life: the soft zephyr, the warm wind of youth that later the mistral takes it upon itself to cool down, certain southwesterly winds, the sirocco that weakens you, the icy mistral. Air, he thought, life is made of air, a breath and that's it, and after all we too are nothing but a puff, a breath, then one day the machine stops and that breath ends. He stopped too because he was panting...

The story in question is actually a love story, a single, six-page paragraph of interior monologue. It becomes clear (sort of) that the garden holds romantic associations for the narrator. He sees, or hallucinates, a woman hanging clothes on a line. A boy arrives. The two embrace. She sings a song, which the narrator, now slumped against a wall, can hear:

I was in love with the air,
With the air of a woman,
Because the woman was air,  
I was left with a handful of air...

I could go on, but a more complete review can be found in the current print edition of Rain Taxi. It's lovely stuff, though Tabucchi often makes thing difficult by forcing us to ask ourselves: what part of this story actually happened, and what part draws on the narrator's memories and dreams? Andr more fundamentally, what is this story really about?

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