This isn't really Kafka for Kwanzaa. It's just Kafka ... a good animated 21-minute interpretation of the short story A Country Doctor by Koji Yamamura (and, well, it's Kwanzaa, and I like the way "Kafka for Kwanzaa" sounds).
I'll never presume to know what motivated Franz Kafka to write any of his great works, but if I were to imagine an answer, I'd guess that A Country Doctor was his attempt at capturing the slippery logic of an unsettling dream state in all its richness and moral complexity. There's plenty of guilt, self-hatred, rage and sexual jealousy to go around, and it's damn cold out, and the kid isn't really even sick ... or is he? Well, there it is ... Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy Kafka.
I'm too lazy to try to put together a coherent "best books of 2012" list on Literary Kicks, though I'm happy to point you to some other good lists. "A Year in Reading" at the Millions overflows with contributions from smart folks like Kate Zambreno, Scott Esposito, Alexander Chee and Ellen Ullman. Elsewhere, Michele Filgate gathers literary reveries over at the Salon What To Read Awards, and here are Ed Champion's faves and Largehearted Boy's monumental list of lists. Finally, plodding earnestly along behind its paywall, here's the New York Times Book Review's Ten Best Books of 2012, which includes 5 novels and 5 works of non-fiction.
Me, I read more non-fiction -- philosophy, history, politics -- than fiction this year, and I can only think of a few novels that impressed me in 2012. Kino by Jurgen Fauth was a refreshing, tantalizing comedy about art cinema obsessions. The World Without You by Joshua Henkin brought a real family to life. Laurent Binet's HHhH seemed to be an acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about World War II, wrapped like a KFC Double Down inside another acrobatic work of self-exploratory fiction about itself. (I'm not sure if I just made that sound good, but I really liked the book).
I probably skim 150 to 200 blog posts or articles a day, prompted by RSS and Facebook and Twitter. The headlines usually fly by without leaving a trace, but I skimmed one two weeks ago, then returned to it a few days later to read it in full, and found myself thinking about it ever since. This is a piece by a professor named William Egginton with the unfortunately unfocused title "The Novel and the Origins of Modern Philosophy" that appeared at a site called Berfrois after originally running at Stanford University's Arcade. It'ss about the influence Miguel de Cervantes's satirical masterpiece Don Quixote may have had on Rene Descartes's Meditations on First Philosophy, which contained the philosopher's great declaration cogito ergo sum ("I think, therefore I am").
As I read the short article in full, the idea of considering Cervantes and Descartes together suddenly struck me as an obviously great idea -- and not only because of the coincidence that they both have 9-letter names in which 5 of the letters are in exactly the same place (the pronunciations, however, are entirely different, one name being Spanish and the other French).
A tweet from @sarahw alerted me to the news that The Other, Thomas Tyron's fetching 1971 thriller about a good twin named Niles and a bad twin named Holland has been rediscovered and republished by the New York Review of Books with a new introduction by Dan Chaon.
Tyron's book is a rewarding read ... but I couldn't help noticing the marked difference in book cover styles represented by the original paperback cover that I remember so well and the new NYRB version. Strangely, even though I see that the new cover (above, right) attempts to be more artful and evocative than the old (above, left), it actually feels less effective and more conventional. Or are my fond memories of an old favorite book clouding my mind? Have book cover designs gotten better or worse since the 1970s? Good twin, bad twin, good cover, bad cover ...
I must have been eleven years old when I first snatched a Philip Roth novel from my Mom's bookshelf. This was after I devoured a ribald paperback called Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent, an illicit sex comedy featuring Jewish New Yorkers in various undignified erotic escapades that my Grandma Jeannette had brought up from Miami Beach. This funny book advertised itself on its cover as "the feminine rejoinder to Portnoy's Complaint!", which made no sense to me until I discovered in my mother's bookshelves a slender paperback titled Portnoy's Complaint, with a fluorescent yellow cover, ripe as a banana. Naturally, I grabbed it.
But I didn't enjoy Portnoy's Complaint as well as Sheila Levine. Levine was a cheerful, freewheeling urban sex comedy featuring broad characters like the shleppy but sex-starved title character, and Norman, her affable standby boyfriend, who always wore leisure suits bearing flecks. Portnoy's Complaint was something more nasty, more tormented. Instead of hapless Sheila and safe Norman there was a deeply angry and self-loathing hero named Alex Portnoy, and a sinister, passive-aggressive female predator known as the Monkey, and then a strong woman in Israel whose sexual self-assurance renders the hero impotent. The book's riffs on artful masturbation were funny, but there wasn't much else for an eager 11-year-old like me to relate to. I was also put off by an undertone of hostility to both women and Christians, a heaviness that made this Jewish sex comedy feel more oppressive than liberating, more thorny than horny.
First, we are transported to the Oregon Coast:
Along the western slopes of the Oregon Coastal Range ... come look: the hysterical crashing of tributaries as they merge into the Wakonda Auga River ...
The first little washes flashing like thick rushing winds through sheep sorrel and clover, ghost fern and nettle, sheering, cutting ... forming branches. Then, through bearberry and salmonberry, blueberry and blackberry, the branches crashing into creek, into streams. Finally, in the foothills, through tamarack and sugar pine, shittim bark and silver spruce -- and the green and blue mosaic of Douglas fir -- the actual river falls 500 feet ... and look: opens out upon the fields."
Then, we notice that a human arm is dangling over the river:
Twisting and stopping and slowly untwisting in the gusting rain, eight or ten feet above the flood’s current, a human arm, tied at the wrist (just the arm; look) disappearing downward at the frayed shoulder where an invisible dancer performs twisting pirouettes for an enthralled audience (just the arm, turning there, above the water)…” [The human arm is also flipping the bird to the enraged union men on the other shore].
And from the very beginning of Sometimes a Great Notion, Ken Kesey's second novel and eagerly-awaited follow-up to his acclaimed One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, we are hooked.
There's a pretty funny Hipster's What Should I Read Next? Flowchart up at Goodreads.com, a social networking site for readers that I don't usually frequent because I'm too much of a hipster. I think whoever created this (a person identified as "Patrick") mostly nails this assignment, and I especially like the way he totally overemphasizes David Foster Wallace and knows that we already read Alison Bechdel. Not surprisingly, this chart touches upon several writers we either love or hate here on Litkicks, like Marcel Proust, Roberto Bolano, Salman Rushdie, Chuck Palahniuk, Sheila Heti, Hubert Selby, Jr., Colson Whitehead and of course David Foster Wallace. How the hell this article forgot to include Junot Diaz and Margaret Atwood is beyond me.
The movies are over, J.K. Rowling has moved on to adult fiction, and yet here I am, lying curled between the couch and the heater, pinching the fat inner spine of The Goblet of Fire between my thumb and forefinger. This is my fifth time. As a teenager, I used to read by closet-light, flipping back to the first chapter immediately after finishing the last, as if expecting something new to happen. Only in Harry’s world could such an enchanted book exist ...
"One cannot read a book: one can only reread it." -Vladimir Nabokov
There is something akin to magic in reading a novel for the first time: the first brush with a new world of characters and creatures is thrilling to imagine; each turn of the page lures us deeper into the mystery of the dream; and, by the end, we arrive at a catharsis of completion and knowing.
Once the mystery is solved, however, the story does not lose its power. In rereading, one can explore the text for hidden delights tucked into each book, free from the burden of mystery and with a keener eye for dramatic irony. Throughout the series, nods and winks to future happenings and cross-textual connections shape the rest of Rowling’s ever-expanding, ever-darkening fantasy world. With a world so vast, it’s difficult to catch it all in one take.
I'll be reading a lot of books from or about Africa this winter. I'm starting with Geoff Wisner's A Basket of Leaves: 99 Books that Capture the Spirit of Africa.
Then I'll be digging into In the House of the Interpreter, the second installment of longtime Litkicks favorite Ngugi wa Thiong'o's fascinating multi-volume memoir of a literary life in Kenya (we reviewed the first installment, Dreams In a Time of War). I didn't get too far into Ngugi's other recent release, Globalectics, a book assembled from literary lectures by Ngugi, but maybe that's because I'd rather hear the author talk about himself than about the academic reputation of regional African literature. I've always been partial to memoirs, and I'm really psyched to read In The House of the Interpreter.
It wouldn't feel right to say I'm also "psyched" to read a memoir about the horrifying civil war between Biafra and Nigeria, a blight of violence and manufactured famine that ended in 1970 with the eradication of Biafra as an upstart nation (today's situation in Darfur is all too reminiscent of Biafra's disaster). But it is exciting news that the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe has now followed his classic Things Fall Apart with a heartfelt memoir of the Biafra war, There Was A Country: A Personal History of Biafra. This tragic period of Nigerian history was also the subject of an award-winning novel a few years ago, Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie (though, as I blogged at the time, I had a hard time matching this book to my expectations). Maybe I'll understand Chinua Achebe's book better.
Also buzzing in the African scene: Black Bazaar by the charming Alain Mabanckou of Congo-Brazzaville, and the first authorized biography of my favorite metafictional expatriate from South Africa, J. M. Coetzee: A Life in Writing, by the brave J. C. Kannemeyer, who must have fielded an unimaginable number of cold stares and awkward silences from the famously sarcastic and antisocial (but, truly, brilliant!) Coetzee while interviewing him for the book. Kannemeyer deserves some kind of literary award just for surviving the interview process.
What a sweet surprise! The calescent American novelist Joyce Carol Oates has taken to twittering between novels, and she's awfully good at it.
"A tweet is a synaptic leap with no neuron awaiting", she wrote on October 18, preceded by this: "Consciousness is most tolerable when semi-, quasi-, or un-." She seems to be aiming for a fast connection to her readers, and is clearly enjoying the freedom the new medium gives her. She's also not above telling stories about her cats or her campus adventures at Princeton. Joyce Carol Oates, who Litkicks still thinks ought to be in the movies, because she's so magnetic, has also recently found the time to edit a new Oxford University Press anthology, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories, featuring some well-worn classics along with newer names like Lorrie Moore, Pinckney Benedict, Junot Diaz.