Summer Reading

The short stretch between June and August is one of the few times I have a chance to read some non-work related fiction. This summer I found two novels that I would highly recommend you add to your own list.

1. Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions
The best way I can describe this book is as a highly literary analogue to Stephen King’s Langoliers (a book longtime readers of ITM will recall from Eileen Joy’s comments and post). Having lost his wife and two sons in a plane crash, a professor of English (by the way, Eileen has written on everything: depictions of professors here) becomes obsessed with the life of a silent film comedian. After publishing a book on the man (Hector Mann to be exact; the novel can be overly literary at times, with many a screaming symbol), our hero David Zimmer is called to the artist’s home to view a series of films he made for no audience. Mann dies as Zimmer arrives, and in accordance with his will the films must be destroyed by sunset. Zimmer gets through exactly one magisterial installment, then finds the others vanishing in a premature bonfire. Throughout the book history has been disappearing: Zimmer’s family, Mann’s secret life, works of art … everything is so quickly dissolved to nothing. The book is actually not as dire as I make it sound, and in fact ends up being strangely affirmative. It is also at times emotionally wrenching: the scene when Zimmer, determined to view the Mann films before their destruction, boards a plane for the first time since the loss of his family and relives the moment of their crash (his wife desperately trying to comfort boys who cannot understand the fate approaching them) is horrific, real, weirdly cathartic.

2. Nadeem Aslam, Maps for Lost Lovers
I began this book in London because Aslam will be GW’s writer in residence this autumn. I could not put it down, and found myself taking advantage of the late setting of the sun to read it on our balcony overlooking the city. Indeed, it’s the perfect book of contemporary London — or Dasht-e-Tanhaii, as the characters call the place. Like The Book of Illusions, this work is highly literary, and to my mind demonstrates in its deliberateness that it was composed in longhand. One of the main characters, Shamas, is wandering icy streets, thinking about the almost certain murder of his brother and of his brother’s girlfriend, probably by her family. Aslam writes:

The almost five months since the lovers disappeared have been months of contained mourning for Shamas – but now the grief can come out. He is not a believer, so he knows that the universe is without saviors: the surface of the earth is a great shroud whose dead will not be resurrected.

Yet the dead are walking, glimpsed as phantoms that shimmer near lakes, or as memories that resist sinking into oblivion. Kaukab, the daughter of an imam and Shamas’s wife, is given a richly complicated portrait in which her faith both sustains and destroys her, and in which she realizes the love that bonds her so achingly to her children has been for them — against all her intentions — a poison, leaving them in ruins. There is a beautiful scene in which her son Charag, an artist filled with fury for her inability to see his art as anything but insult, returns to the family home after many years away (years during which his mother daily calls his answering machine to hear his voice, but cannot allow herself to leave a message). Neither mother nor son are able to speak anything without detonating something in the minefield of hurt between them, but when Kaukab ascends to her small house’s bathroom and feels the warmth Charag has impressed on its linoleum by standing to wash his face, she has to steady her heart with trembling fingers, so filled is she with joy. This wrenching mixture of love and inexpressibility moves the whole novel along. It’s one of the best books I’ve read in a long time … and I’ve told you almost nothing of the plot. Nor of murdered Jugnu, who studied butterflies and whose arm had been forever stained with a phosphorescence that bathes the whole book in eerie, beautiful radiance.

So, what did you read this summer that has nothing to do with medieval studies and that you loved?

[cross posted from In the Middle]

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