The monster in my home

November 29, 2010

It’s time again to weed the stack on the reading table. Take a reality check of what I will likely read in upcoming weeks. Enough with the “I want to read these books soon” stack and the “flat stack” that grew like a snake across my dining room table so I could work my way from one end to the other.

That snake, however, proved to be delightfully satisfying as I watched it shrink. Antonya Nelson’s Bound and Patricia Engel’s Vida got picked up rather quickly followed by A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr and then Stephen Vizinczey’s In Praise of Older Women. But then I started adding more books, and I didn’t like the ongoing look of the snake, more boa than garden variety. I’ve been here before. I nurture a monster then have to face it. 

I won’t detail the long list of weeding, rather share the highlights that I, Hotel by Karen Tei Yamashita,  Skippy Dies by Paul Murray and The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson got moved off because it’s not a time for them. (That was painful.) But, as it goes, remove a Man Booker candidate and then add one. Rose Tremain’s Trespass, long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker, as was Skippy Dies, now appears on the RT. Considering it’s a 14-day library book, it won’t be sitting there for long.

You might ask, why not read Skippy Dies instead of Trespass?  I wish I could answer that in a way that would offer a template for successful reading table management.  I don’t have it in me.

Speaking of library books (there’s another one on the RT, too), if I end up reading a library book, I’ll then scout for a copy for my bookshelves at used book stores and/or shows. The annual Dayton, Ohio, Bookfair held in November is a great place for such finds. 

Here are five other novels — in addition to Trespass — that survived the weeding. They are among 12 books listed on My Reading Table, a TLC page reflecting the high points neatly stacked on my dining room table. Some survivors have been long-standing titles on the table, such as Elie Wiesel’s Night and Brad Gooch’s biography of Flannery O’Connor

Only 12 books on TLC’s My Reading Table, you may ask? Again, they are merely the highlights and/or immediate next reads. Not reflected are books stacked on two other tables outside the dining room table. You likely have your own monsters to deal with. You don’t need mine.

♦  Faithful Place by Tana French
NYT book critic Janet Maslin listed this as one of her 10 favorites of 2010. Then I saw it at the library and checked it out. Faithful Place is a story about an Irish family with a mystery to go along —  one of the family members returns to his hometown, Dublin, Ireland, to investigate the disappearance of his childhood sweetheart.

♦  Stoner by John Williams
A classic published by The New York Review of Books, this is the story of a man who encounters a succession of disappointments. From an essay in the NYT: “John Williams’s ‘Stoner’ is something rarer than a great novel — it is a perfect novel, so well told and beautifully written, so deeply moving, that it takes your breath away.”

♦  The Visiting Suit by Xiaoda Xiao
A memoir-in-stories by an author whose first novel, The Cave Man, awakened me to human rights atrocities going on in modern China. Published by Two Dollar Radio whose branding is “books too loud to ignore,” which aptly fits the work of Xiaoda Xiao. Also on the RT from Two Dollar Radio, The Correspondence Artist by Barbara Browning, which looks “too good to ignore.” Scheduled for February 2011 release.

♦  Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg: The Letters, edited by Bill Morgan and David Stanford
This terrific book has been on and off the RT, and it’s now back on again. The stop-and-go reading has nothing to do with my interest in the book, rather being called to pick up other books and to let it go for a while. These letters are fascinating, and they read like a great story about the Beat Generation.

Xiao’s “The Cave Man”

December 10, 2009

Xiaoda Xiao’s debut novel immediately drops us into a solitary confinement cell built into the natural concave of a hillside. The decade is the 1970s and the place Chairman Mao’s communist China. Prisoner Ja Feng, wrongfully accused of a counterrevolutionary crime, crouches in the dark, concrete space too small to stand up in. He survives the nine-month confinement by focusing on his dreams and the past and by trading notes through a food hole in the iron door with his neighboring cell mates.

The Cave Man is a small book of large meaning written in articulate, unadorned prose. The simplicity of the words lure us into the unfolding of Ja Feng’s inhuman circumstances that are depicted in vivid scenes and a calm, emotionally distant tone.  Such contrasts of simple versus inhuman and vivid versus calm create the tragic tension in this powerful book, bringing to the forefront  the awful grace of man’s will to survive, no matter what.

Ja Feng is pardoned from his crime after Mao’s death and a change in government leadership. With his freedom comes a new prison of psychological suffering. He screams in his sleep and follows people in the street, wondering what it’s like to be normal. Eventually, Ja Feng finds employment as a plumber and then a salesman, building designer, restaurant owner and artist. He fails at or gets fired from each endeavor, sometimes for political reasons, sometimes because he’s perceived as mentally ill, but mostly because he’s feared and misunderstood.  Even though he finds his way to the United States for graduate school, in the end, Ja Feng cannot overcome the brutality of his past confinement.

Xiaoda Xiao, like his protagonist, spent seven years in a Chinese forced labor camp in the 1970s. This talented author accidently ripped a poster of Chairman Mao and was accused of committing a counterrevolutionary crime. It’s not surprising, then, that The Cave Man convincingly unsettles us, especially with the knowledge that Ja Feng, as a fictional representation of many real-life Chinese prisoners, although freed from his solitary cell, could never live freely again.

This is a moving story and an important book that sheds light not only on historical events but present ones.  Consider two recent news reports, one from The Associated Press, one from The New York Times. Their titles speak the relevance:

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