When Raymond Carver was diagnosed with terminal Stage IV lung cancer, he kept on being Raymond Carver. He kept writing and he kept reading, finding some comfort or meaning in the stories of Chekhov. A New Path to the Waterfall is his last book; a collection of poems edited by his partner Tess Gallagher, most written in the last year of his life. Carver’s work had always been direct and unflinching and neither his outlook nor his voiced changed as his life came to an end. The poems in here are sometimes funny but always insightful, always speaking to the larger truth of the reality in which we live.
The prevailing motif here is the poetry within prose. Carver’s poems are often narrative, short vignettes that offer a glimpse into some life, usually in the midst of suffering. In this vein, each of the six sections feature excerpts of Chekhov’s prose, removed from their context and lineset as poetic verse. While most of these pieces function just fine as poetry, they were the least engaging part of this book for me. Carver’s original work always wins hands down.
Contemporary poetry (this collection is from the 80s, but that’s still close enough to the present day for me to label contemporary, more on that later) has always been challenging for me. Lots of open mic nights have soured me with bad amatuer readings and the obsession with innovation as an end in and of itself is offputting, but there’s something incredibly powerful about the oral voice that seems to be the common denominator of almost all good poetry. It has to be read aloud, or “read aloud” in one’s mind. Good poems are not just meticulously constructed and edited, they’re composed. There’s a music in those lines. There’s something deep in our shared experience that responds to our oral tradition as it presents itself in poetry. It’s too bad more people don’t read the good stuff.
Powell’s is a great store. As much as I love browsing brick-and-mortar used book stores, sometimes I need (or want) a particular book. Powell’s is a real place, an independent bookseller, and one of the good guys. As such, instead of becoming an Amazon affiliate (a company that has consistently done some terrible things for book sellers, small presses, and readers) I’ve decided to become a Powell’s Partner. It’s not as lucrative, but I’ll sleep better at night (and I’m not expecting to make money with this blog anyway, just defray the costs of running things a bit).
If you’re going to buy a book, buy it at your local independent bookstore if you can. If you don’t have one nearby or need to buy online, please do me a favor and use my referral link. It won’t cost you an more, you’ll be supporting a great bookstore and my site will get a small fraction.
I’ll be posting links to the books I talk about. If you are planning to buy a book that I haven’t posted about, you can still get it through my referral link, or you can search Powell’s directly from the badge at the top of this page.
If you aren’t already watching these, check out the concerts from this year, then go back through their archives and dig for gold. There’s a lot of it in their YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL1B627337ED6F55F0
Franco-Czech novelist Milan Kundera is a man of ideas. His essay Testaments Betrayed (an essay in 9 parts, weighing in at 280 pages) is the most conceptually dense piece of writing I’ve ever experienced. Unbearable Lightness isn’t far behind, but it’s infinitely more engaging. Kundera has such a light-touch mastery of the novel that there is no jarring dissonance when he leaves his characters behind to address some philosophical tangent or directly breaks the fourth wall. It’s a novel of ideas, with characters that exist only to frame the questions Kundera wants to ask. It’s a testament to his skill that his artifices don’t feel the least bit artificial. Thomas or Sabina are particular and real enough that one can’t help getting invested, and their situations add genuine urgency to the ideas being put forth.
The novel is somewhat less than exactly chronological and divided into its seven parts more by theme than by the passing of time. The focal idea is extrapolated out of the nature of binary opposition (lightness and weight, good and evil, weakness and strength) and remains present throughout, but each section deals with another set of ideas, from the personal psychology of the Teresa section to the hilarious inspection of our inescapable reduction to kitsch in Part 6. Kundera’s questioning is both affecting and effective. We laugh at the journalist who blows himself up on a landmine by stepping off the path to photograph a starlet on a political protest march in Cambodia, then Kundera shows how similar our own existence is to such absurdity a page later.
There’s a serious thematic overlap between this novel and Testaments Betrayed, but as much as I love his essay there’s something about the nature of the novel that allows this kind of inquisition to come across more palpably. It’s less easy to become cognitively saturated within the framework of narrative (although I fully admit the possibility that my brain speaks “story” more fluently than philosophy and that I need a narrative crutch to comfortably address the kind of ideas Kundera brings up). Unbearable Lightness functions flawlessly both as a novel of ideas and a novel of characters. It’s the best work in translation I’ve read in my entire life and (sorry, John Darnielle) it’s the best novel I’ve read this year. Get a copy and read it as soon as humanly possible.
These are all podcasts that were either too problematic for me to recommend unreservedly or that I hadn’t listened to long enough to come to a particular opinion. In no particular order:
Serial: This is great and you should listen to it. Lots of review ink has already been spilled in its praise -it’s basically a long-form This American Life story, investigative journalism and storytelling at a high level.
Adventures With Words Podcasts: Very good podcast on literature and books in general from the other side of the pond. A bit heavy on the genre and YA fiction for my tastes, but the hosts are discerning about the quality of writing and not afraid to give a bad review. British as hell.
Three Percent Podcast: All about books in translation, with some extremely knowledgeable and qualified hosts. It’s a great resource about an often-neglected subset of literary fiction (the title is derived from the fact that only 3% of books sold in America were originally written in a language other than English) but there are times when the hosts are some of the most insufferably pretentious asshats I’ve ever listened to, complaining about how totally “last year” Icelandic authors are, or how they can’t listen to anything read in “NPR voice”, or how jingoistic it is for Americans to root for the American team in the world cup, rather than a sophisticated team like France.
The Partially Examined Life Podcast: Philosophy podcast by a group of guys who studied philosophy extensively then got real jobs instead, which was probably a good decision. Great show with some great thought, but the quality of each episode varies (for me at least) with the different guests or subjects being discussed. The Dead Authors Podcast: Rather funny show where various actors and media personalities play famous dead authors being interviewed by H.G. Wells, who uses his time machine to grab them for a quick show before they die. Paul F. Tompkins kills it as Wells, but some of the “authors” are horrible. The humor can devolve into something like improv night, and even when it hits the jokes tend to be more of a pop-culture bent than a literary one.