Books I read this week: January

These are the books I read in January. It always takes me longer to read non-fiction than fiction, so I spent a long time on not so many books this month.

Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace by Anne Lamott is a collection of remembrances of moments of grace. It’s a quieter book than I was expecting, but good. There’s a lot in here about recognizing grace even when answers to prayers aren’t what we want, which connects to an ongoing conversation I have with a dear friend, so that was nice. There are a plethora of aha! passages in this one.

Sometimes we let them resist finding any meaning or solace in anything involving their daughter’s diagnosis, and this was one of the hardest things to do- to stop trying to make things come out better than they were.

People like to say, “Forgiveness begins with forgiving yourself.” Well, that’s nice. Thank you for sharing.

I don’t think much surprises Him [God]. This is how we make important changes- barely, poorly, slowly. And still, He raises His fist in triumph.

Foxglove Summer: A Rivers of London Novel  by Ben Aaronovitch is the lone fiction book this month, and the one I read in a day versus a week and a half or more. It’s the fifth in the Rivers of London series, which is set in a London where magic exists but only a certain section of the population is aware of it. In this one, two young girls have gone missing and D.C. Grant is helping in the investigation. He’s out in the country, away from London, so most of the supporting characters from the previous books are absent in this one, which is a shame because I like them. But the mystery at the core of the book is interesting, and well written as I’ve come to expect. There are more modern day references in this one, which isn’t bad or good, I just noticed. Aaronovitch is doing a great job of widening the world he’s created, and I’m enjoying watching him do it. I just hope the next book moves some of the overriding story points along a little faster.

The Fall of Language in the Age of English by Minae Mizumura is an incredible book. There’s no way I can do it justice here. In it, Mizumura (whose novel, A True Novel, was one of my favorite reads last year) takes an in depth look at the effect that the globalization of the English language is having on literatures around the world. Along the way she looks at the history of the Japanese language (written and spoken), the process of any spoken language becoming a written language, the history of the English language becoming a universal language,  the privilege that comes with a universal language, and the history of Japanese literature.  It’s heavy and thought provoking and utterly fascinating. I think anything that opens our eyes to privilege is useful, and I find this book especially interesting because it was originally written for a Japanese audience- so not for the recipients of privilege in this case.

One of her points is that because English has become a universal language (meaning that many non-native speakers have learned it and speak it as a second language), there is an uneven relationship because non-native speakers can read literature written in English, but books in other languages have to be translated into English to become books that can be read outside their own country.

Another thing she points out is specific to Japan- as the written language has changed over time, classic books have become unreadable because people literally do not know the kanji that make them up. It’s similar to the difficulty people have reading old English (think The Canterbury Tales), except that with Old English you can sound it out. If you don’t know a particular kanji, you have to look it up, or you’re just out of luck.

Anyway, there’s way too much in here to sum up here, but it’s an incredible book and I really highly recommend it.

Reality is constructed by languages, and the existence of a variety of languages means the existence of a variety of realities, a variety of truths. Understanding the multifaceted nature of truth does not necessarily make people happy, but it makes them humble, and mature, and wise.

They are not condemned to know, for instance, that the works that are usually translated into English are those that are both thematically and linguistically the easiest to translate, that often only reinforce the worldview constructed by the English language, and preferably that entertain readers with just the right kind of exoticism.

She cautions that the act of acquiring knowledge is wholly dependent on the language one knows. The less English one knows, the less access one has to global knowledge.

The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes by Janet Malcom is also very thought provoking. Rather than a biography of Sylvia Plath, this is a biography (of sorts) of the biographies that have already been written about Sylvia Plath. It’s a look at the difficulties of writing someone else’s story, and the specific pitfalls of trying to write about someone who committed suicide, while family members who played a part in it are still alive and have control over the person’s legacy.  Plath’s sister-in-law Olywn Hughes is in control of her literary estate, and all requests for permission to use excerpts of Plath’s work go through her. As Malcom discovers, she is quick to rescind permission if she doesn’t approve of the tenor of the biography being written- if it doesn’t line up with the story that she wants told. At the same time it raises questions of how we perceive authority- do we want an “impartial” biographer (which is nearly impossible, as Malcom points out, because if the biographer doesn’t have an investment in what happened, why are they writing the book?) or do we want an account from someone who was intimately involved- an account which will then be discounted because the narrator is “unreliable”?

I remember when one of the movies about Sylvia Plath came out- it seems like maybe Gwyneth Paltrow was in it? I’m not going to look it up. Anyway, one of Plath’s children was asked if they were going to see it, and she said something to the effect of “Why would I want to watch the very worst thing that ever happened to me?”  This is a reoccurring theme in Ted Hughes’ correspondence with biographers- reminding them that while Plath is gone, her children are still alive and able to read the things written and speculated about her. This begs the question of what responsibility biographers have to their subjects and their subjects’ families. I don’t have any answers, but it’s interesting to think about.

In a work on nonfiction we almost never know the truth of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what is going on in his imagination.

How can you call it a tribute to her- to make a public spectacle of the one thing she ought to be allowed to keep to herself if nothing else-her infinitely humiliating private killing of herself… – Ted Hughes


Leave a Reply