Since it’s World Book Day, and the twentieth edition no less, I decided it’s time to sum up my reads for 2017 so far- they look almost measly, as each time on the first of January I imagine the ocean of pages I will read in the year to come, and then hundreds of Facebook and Instagram feeds later I yet again conclude that the universe is made up of way too many distractions and way too little time.
This being said, here’s the list so far, just in case perhaps my musings will pique someone’s curiosity. The first book I read, or better put, finished, in 2017 was Elizabeth McKenzie’s The Portable Veblen, which accompanied me during the holiday season, from Christmas until early January. I should perhaps start by revealing the relevant reason for which I bought the book: I judged it by its cover and the cover has a squirrel on it. It’s not a random squirrel either but one which organically belongs to the story, alongside Norwegian economist Thorstein Veblen and advances in modern neurology. For the most part an enjoyable quirky story it becomes just a little bit too quirky every now and then- a perfect holiday read then, but I’m not sure it will end on my best of 2017 list. I will still impulse buy things with squirrels though.
Next came Marina Abramović’s memoir, Walk Through Walls which I’d been looking forward to for quite some time- and it’s also a book which can be judged by the cover, as seeing Marina’s intent and ridiculously young looking stare (she’s 69!) you start to understand how she could make a living out of using her body as a form of expression. Generally, people are most taken aback by the performances in which she hurts herself, but for me the real riddle are those in which she stays still for very long periods- I have an absolute lack of patience which makes even five minutes of being in the same position excruciating, so I could not imagine how someone can do that for eight or more hours. Neither can I imagine it now, that sort of willpower is probably innate, and then a strict upbringing by Partisan war heroes helps it along, but the book offers a fascinating glimpse into a very peculiar otherness from which I felt I could learn quite a lot- plus she’s also ridiculously funny in that slightly dark Balkan way.
Speaking of dark things- Han Kang’s The Vegetarian cemented my view that the only thing which matches Korean cinema’s penchant for the weird is Korean literature. Compared to Marina’s breeze-block of a life it seems a (literally) light read at first, two hundred pages or so in Romanian, even less in some English editions, but that doesn’t stop it from creating an all-enveloping universe which lingers on long after you’ve finished it, which you will probably do in no time as it quickly becomes addictive. The story might at first seem almost simple, but I’ve read so many coherent sounding interpretations of it that I’ll spare you mine and let everyone decide for themselves. As a fun fact, I read a good bit of it in the very same pool in which Ryan Gosling has that practical coffee fully dressed, and which has in the meantime also been featured in a Gucci ad.
There are however some books which are just as thin on content as they are in form: hyped as it is, I could not really find much to be enjoyed in Françoise Sagan’s Aimez-vous Brahms…I suspect that the English translation leaving the title in the original is some sort of ruse to make it at least a little mysterious and interesting, for the story itself is painfully flat, and so are the characters. I could have perhaps placed a bet on the outcome, but the odds were so high for getting it right that I lost interest even in that. (I got it right, unlike my bet for Best Movie at the Oscars.) While there’s nothing inherently wrong with a clean and simple style of prose, the fact that I encountered not one unknown word for the whole length of it is less a praise for my French thesaurus than a criticism of Sagan for hers.
Muriel Barbery already wins a first battle, as I found plenty of exciting words in The Elegance of the Hedgehog– starting with the fact how the word for hedgehog seems to be very varied across European languages, even the related ones. Stepping further, though, I must confess that I found both the story and the main characters unbelievable even by literary standards. Fiction is of course suspension of disbelief, but every genre requires different levels of suspension, and I felt that Barbery’s dosage was not the best at times. And yet, there is also an undeniable charm to the book, not dissimilar to that elegance of the hedgehog mentioned in the title. It’s basically like a fat ballerina hurtling onto stage and positioning herself into a defective plié- you know it’s wrong, but at the same time you can’t help but appreciate the bravery.
In one of the books soon to be mentioned in the ‘Cohen block’, Leonard’s mother tells him to shave whenever he faces an adversity- similarly to this, whenever I feel a bit low, I read a novel from the Montalbano series- mercifully Andrea Camilleri is amazingly prolific, so I still have a few in the unread pile. There is possibly nothing over spectacular in his detective novels, but since I’m swimming in similes here I will compare them to chicken soup. You need chicken soup. (Unless you’re vegetarian, but then, as Han Kang would tell you, bad things might happen.) Chicken soup is comforting and always there- and so is Montalbano, his little quirks and habits, his sumptuous Sicilian meals, the women who unwaveringly fall for him, his cronies and villainous enemies, his long-suffering girlfriend and the piles of papers he needs to sign. Briefly returning to suspension of disbelief, I first assumed his theatrical signing of papers for hours on end is an example of that, but now I know it’s not. It’s called Italian bureaucracy and it’s quite unbelievably real. For the record- the book I read this time around was Angelica’s Smile and it ticked absolutely all the elements mentioned above. A delight.
So now on to the Cohen block, consisting of his second novel, Beautiful Losers, Sylvie Simmons’s biography I’m Your Man and Mircea Mihaieș’s exhaustive analysis of the bard’s work, which to the great loss of Cohen devotees everywhere but Romania (we’re so lucky on so many levels, I know) is only available in the original. To those questioning the sanity of someone reading them one after the other or generally spending so much time investigating the life and works of a musician, be informed, I am looking for new material as we speak. The reasons are perhaps more complicated, but the great man himself would toil months to years to come up with one simple and perfect line, so I’ll also be brief, and hopefully to the point (never as to the point as Leonard was, though) by quoting The Guardian’s Dorian Lynskey: ‘he knew things about life, and if you listened you could learn.’