What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Summer Novella Mania!

 I'm beginning to suspect that I'll have to place pre-orders for the entire catalog of Europa Editions... Up until now, I've not had a single disappointing experience reading one of the books that they mostly cherry-pick from works published abroad to translate and introduce to a North American readership. Most folks who have encountered their books so far probably did so via The Elegance of the Hedgehog or perhaps another French-language novel that made a lesser splash late last year, A Novel Bookshop. I became a die-hard fan after reading Rondo this spring, and have just finished reading two novellas that I loved and that would make great summer reading -- just meaty enough to make you feel that you have been thinking as well as reading, beautifully written and translated, and featuring a range of fascinating characters.

The first of these is The Shadow of What We Were by the exiled Chilean writer, Luis Sepulveda. In a deftly-written 132 pages, the author has imagined what might happen if some of his fellow political exiles, on their return to Chile, had decided on one last political "action" as a tribute to their radical past and with the assistance of a man known to them as "The Shadow", a veteran anarchist. (Hence the title: the men are "fatter, older, bald or with greying beards" who "still cast the shadow of what they were."

The Shadow has his own agenda, but on his way to meet them falls victim to a bizarre and darkly funny accident. Enter another returned exile, a former Maoist who now spends his days immersing himself in the Hollywood fantasyland of cinematic triumphs like 'Reservoir Dogs'. He decides to go to the rendezvous in place of "The Shadow"... I adored this small gem of a book. Yes, it assumes a bit of knowledge of Chilean politics, but without knowing much more than the bare bones of the fact of the Pinochet coup (gleaned from "Missing", the Costa Gavras film) I was able to follow the narrative quite comfortably. And the author has an incredible eye for the telling detail -- from a character's purchase of "diet chickens" for his fellow aging revolutionaries, we learn of his aversion to poultry -- and later the darkly funny reason for it. We get to follow an equally aging police inspector and his young colleague as they try to solve the mystery of "The Shadow's" fate. There are poignant moments -- such as the ex-Maoist's wife, who clings to her memories of life in exile in Berlin to comfort her back in Santiago (quite a reversal!) -- and moments of almost Chaplinesque hilarity. A beautifully written book addressing complex subjects simply and elegantly; in a fabulous translation. 4.6 stars.

French Leave by Anna Gavalda is less complex and much, much more accessible. Although dealing with a similar kind of reunion among four people, its characters are siblings drawn together by family history and experience, not political activism. And the story is a domestic and social one, revolving around a single weekend in which Garance (the narrator), her elder brother Simon and sister Lola, are supposed to be attending a family wedding along with Simon's rather oppressive wife, who frets about such things as the proper attire, not spoiling the leather of the car seats and other such stuff that Garance considers bizarre and unwarranted. Almost at the church door, the siblings bolt for the chateau where their brother Vincent is working for the summer. Again, it's a story that focuses on rebuilding and rediscovering the ties that behind; although not much happens beyond talk, the reader is aware that the real action is behind the scenes -- the reinforcement of the kind of emotional bonds between them that, when the book ends, will allow each to return to his or her own life with its rewards and challenges. It deals with the role that nostalgia can play in our lives as we approach the age when we realize life will never live up to our childhood dreams of what it can become, and how sometimes we need to cut loose from ugly realities, if only for a few hours. 3.9 stars, also recommended, although it's not going to be as memorable a book for me as Sepulveda's, I suspect.

These were the first books I've read by both authors, although I'm certainly going to be seeking out more that they have written. And after reading these novellas, I'm going to move on shortly to You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik. I got a review copy of this from the Europa folks at BookExpo in late May; it's one of the first titles that will be rolling off their presses in a new series of books by newish North American authors, a series edited by Alice Sebold (of The Lovely Bones fame). Here's hoping the lucky streak holds...

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