If you’ve read The Rabbit Back Literature Society, you no doubt finished the book with many questions to think about. The author discusses some of the possible meanings of a few of the mysterious events in the novel in this interview for Quadrapheme. Fun.
I’ve always liked intimate novels, stories that penetrate deeper and deeper into the lives and hearts of one person or small group of people, the sort of books that are often written in the first person – coming of age stories, claustrophopic stories of obsession, even. Stories that feel as if the narrator is talking directly to you alone. Jane Eyre, Catcher in the Rye, Housekeeping.
But more and more I find myself wanting to read big novels, stories that take place in a world that grows and grows as you read until the book seems to paint a portrait of an entire subculture, or city, or country. They aren’t always especially long books (though they usually are), they just feel expansive, they give your mind room to roam, they make you feel moved not just by the lives of the characters, but the life of the whole society that the characters inhabit. They make you feel bigger inside when you read them.
These are some of the great books that have satisfied my yearning for something big:
Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris
Told in the first person plural, the world inside this funny and strangely moving book expands as you read to become a portrait of an entire corporation and the all-too-familiar world of commerce that surrounds it.
Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
This biting satire follows the lives of two young women, the shrewd social climber Becky Sharp, one of the most memorable characters in any book I’ve ever read, and her conventional, complacent schoolmate Amelia Sedley, and a large cross-section of early 19th century British society.
A Fine Balance, by Rohinton Mistry
Twenty years of Indian history seen through the eyes of two struggling lower-caste men and the people they encounter. Like Middlemarch, this book teaches you something about history that a factual account can’t.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
This book focuses on two characters, a young doctor and an intelligent young upper class woman, who are both seeking intellectual fulfillment and love during a time of great political change in England. Many people consider Middlemarch the best English novel ever written. I won’t argue with them.
Independent People by Halldor Laxness, translated by John A. Thompson
This story of the life of one Icelandic family over the course of the twentieth century seems to move from ancient to modern times in one generation. Thought I would read it to find out why Laxness won the Nobel Prize. Now I know. This book broke my heart, and made me feel as if I’d spent years in Iceland.
Do you have any big books to recommend?
Words Without Borders, the online journal of literature in English translation, has published an issue devoted to contemporary Finnish literature, featuring interesting recent works by thirteen Finnish authors, including translations by myself and fellow FELT members Emily Jeremiah and Owen Witesman.
I have three pieces in the issue. One is an excerpt from my translation of Sofi Oksanen’s new novel When the Doves Disappeared, the third book in her planned Estonia-Finland quartet. When the Doves Disappeared is scheduled for publication in the US in 2015.
I highly recommend them.
I have a carpenter friend whose specialty is tearing down houses to make way for townhouses. Why have one house on a city lot when you can have three? During a recent job he found a locked suitcase under the rafters in the Georgetown neighborhood of Seattle. His coworkers wanted to break it open, but he knew I liked stuff like this so he saved it, and two days ago he gave it to me.
I googled ‘how to pick a briefcase lock’ and was basically getting nowhere when lolarusa suggested I be methodical. Try 001, 002, 003, etc., until it opens. I complained that there’s 1,000 possible combinations. “Well,” she said, “you only knit one stitch at a time, but when you’re done you have a sock.” Good point.
248. I went from 001 to 247, and when I hit 248 that lock popped open. This is what I found.
There were no clothes. It seemed to be a collection of precious possessions rather than a traveling bag. Dominating the contents was a locked wooden box.
Opening the lid section of the case revealed that the owner was a Freemason.
Tucked within the folds of the mason’s apron was the key I’d hoped for, the key to the wooden box. Within the box were old news clippings, a police report, biological specimens, an old journal, and a piece of unfired clay wrapped in coarse cloth.
The mason’s apron was owned by someone named Serene. The journal is by someone named Angell. The journal is all about weird happenings in the ’20s and ’30s, things that allegedly happened in Greenland, and New England, and Louisiana, and seem to be directly related to the clay sculpture, which is less than an inch thick, and perhaps five or six inches square.
I find the whole thing intriguing and disturbing, and confess that I don’t know what to make of it.
postscript: I’ve done my best to transcribe the journal, which you can read here.
They got arrested for making this video. Solidarity videos ensued.
Happy May Day one and all.
More information about Bread and Roses here.
For your springtime enjoyment, here are four songs from the 60s about playground equipment.
The Moody Blues: Ride My Seesaw
The Hollies: On a Carousel
The Beatles: Helter Skelter
Glen Campbell: Where’s the Playground, Susie?
Seems to have been a popular theme from ’67 to ’69. Can you think of any more?
It’s a novel about a quiet young Finnish student who is forced to share her train compartment with a drunken, tale-telling, self-proclaimed murderer as they cross the crumbling Soviet Union from Moscow to Ulan Bator.
Here are some reviews of the book in its various translations to date:
“The wild stories of the rough fellow passenger make this journey increasingly absurd, giddying and captivating… It is a stroke of genius to describe a country and give form to one’s mixed feelings for it through such a figure. ” Aftonbladet
“Melodic, rhythmic language, compressed, poetical and replete with fragrance and colour sensations… The girl and the man, this unlikely couple, accompany one another at the close across the plains as if progressing through a film by Andrej Tarkovskij.” – Svenska Dagbladet
“The outcome is both atmospheric and beautiful, an elegy to the Soviet Union and its people, the land where ‘unhappiness is perceived as happiness’.” – Helsingborgs Dagblad
It’s an ugly, beautiful book.
Available for pre-order from Serpent’s Tail or your favorite bookseller.
translated by Sasha Dugdale
Our sweet companions—sharing your bunk and your bed
The versts and the versts and the versts and a hunk of your bread
The wheels’ endless round
The rivers, streaming to ground
The road. . .
Oh the heavenly the Gypsy the early dawn light
Remember the breeze in the morning, the steppe silver-bright
Wisps of blue smoke from the rise
And the song of the wise
Gypsy czar. . .
In the dark midnight, under the ancient trees’ shroud
We gave you sons as perfect as night, sons
As poor as the night
And the nightingale chirred
Your might. . .
We never stopped you, companions for marvelous hours
Poverty’s passions, the impoverished meals we shared
The fierce bonfire’s glow
And there, on the carpet below,
Fell stars. . .