Top Five for 2010

December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here’s my top five for 2010, absolute no-brainer classics that everyone knows they should read excluded:

5.  The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.  About the (mostly male) urges to possess, consume, destroy; madnesses and neuroses; memory and Memory (our narrator) and the many ways to tell a story.  It’s much like Pynchon if Pynchon were a prose poet and not an onslaught of words and ideas.   (That’s a good thing.)  I wrote a little about it here.

4.  Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell.  If Mitchell had just published a novella entitled “Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Everythin’ After,” this would still be on this list.  (Maybe even higher.)  That brilliant dystopia is the heart of this sextet of nested stories, both structurally and emotionally: it’s the only piece here that really made me feel, but it’s fascinating how this impact was, in large part, due to the story’s connection to those less affecting tales that preceded (and followed) it.  The whole thing is ingenious and envy-inducing, if you appreciate narrative structure.  See this post.

3.  Possession, by A.S. Byatt.  As I said in this post, it’s the perfect postmodern romance.  Also the second book on this list that examines the Victorians in really productive ways that also make you marvel at how much was lost in the 20th century’s march toward replacing humanity with machinery, bureaucracy, circuitry.

2.  The Manyoshu.  (Apologies for missing macrons on the o and u.)  The great 8th-century anthology of Japanese poetry, which I read in a version translated by a committee of Japanese scholars in the 1930s.  (Some interesting social/political implications there, of course, as a presentation of Japanese culture to the world.)  Profoundly moving, seen as a whole: a window onto a culture committed to the conveying the beauty of the natural world, to creating sense-pictures in words.  I especially love the poems of Kakinomoto no Hitomaro, a “saint of poetry” in Japan.  His poems on separation from his wife and her death are Shakespearean in their grief and anger at the phenomenon of death, but indelibly Japanese in idiom and approach.

1.  At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.  I never posted about this, which is stupid on my part, because this is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.  It’s a kind of masterpiece, and part of what makes it so great is that it starts out by just baffling you, so that everything that comes after is this absurd, delightful surprise.  It’s become what the kids call a “cult classic” among lit-nerd types, mostly due to bad timing: published in 1939, in direct opposition to the prevailing mood in Europe, most of the edition was destroyed in the Blitz.  Joyce loved it; so did Gilbert Sorrentino, who paid homage to and cribbed from it in Mulligan Stew (which I, weirdly, read before At Swim-Two-Birds).  Through the power of “aesthoautogamy,” an author in an undergraduate’s story brings his characters to life, and lives with them, and chaos of all sorts ensues.  It’s linguistically anarchic and wonderful, it’s full of fantastic Dublin dialogue and parodies of academic language, it’s somehow both silly and deep.

Ibis Mummies and Jade Cicadas

January 22, 2010 § 2 Comments

Just finished: The Jade Cabinet, by Rikki Ducornet.

Reading next: The Gambler, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.

The Jade Cabinet — my wife Jaime’s pick for me for our annual exchange of books we force the other person to read — is rather too cool to belabor with my typical blather.  So I’ll just give you a sense of a few of my favorite plot points and devices.  If they intrigue you, pick up the book.  You won’t regret it:

1.  Two words: ibis mummies.

Ibis mummies. From Description de l'Egypte Antiquites, v. 2. Image via Linda Hall Library

Millions of them, in fact, from the plundered tombs of Egypt, being crushed into a powder to be used as fertilizer by an evil British industrialist.

2.  “The cabinet was Ming and of sober elegance, and the jade of such rare perfection that as he fingered them our father trembled…. the jade represented an insect, a cicada…. ‘Han period… southern China…” breathed my father.”

Jade cicada, Eastern Han dynasty (25-220), Hebei Provincial Museum. Image from the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.

The figurines in the jade cabinet are an awesome device.  I know it’s Angus Sphery’s fault for being such a damned fool and trading his daughter away for the jade, but come on… pretty gorgeous stuff.  Jade cicadas were placed in the mouths of the dead as symbols of immortality in ancient China.

3.  Etheria and Memory are photographed and befriended by Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll.  Ducornet’s handling of this is admirably nonjudgmental.

Alice Liddell, photographed by Lewis Carroll. Image from Fixing Shadows,

4.  Etheria’s beloved gardens and grotto at the New Age, tragically paved over to make way for Tubbs and Baconfield’s “Temple to Industry and Infancy,” a windowless building to house the nursery of Tubbs’s unborn son and instill in him a proper appreciation for clockwork, mechanization, and all things industrial and efficient, no sunlight or nature required. (I’m guessing the clock tower on the Baconfield building is something Brutalist like this, but less fanciful.)

5.  My favorite character: Feather, Tubbs’s subversive servant, who teaches Etheria magic and presents fat-cat Tubbs calling cards from Mr. Marx, so that, when Tubbs says he’s never heard of him, Feather can respond, “Indeed, Sir, you are bound to, sooner or later.”  My heart broke a little at his tragic fate.

Karl Marx. From the Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University,

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