Hotel Silence (2018)

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Coincidentally, I read John Barth’s debut novel, The Floating Opera, just before reading this winner of the Icelandic Literary Prize. Both books, as it turns out, are preoccupied with Hamlet’s universal and perennial question: “To be or not to be” (this question, incidentally, is a great way to remember how to avoid split infinitives). Barth’s and Ólafsdóttir’s protagonists open their narratives with the decision to commit suicide—not to be. And both characters keep a cool-headed disposition that invites us to consider such a morbid determination without revulsion. But whereas Barth’s book toys with timeline and perspective and, in general, expresses his signature zest for language, Hotel Silence is a straight-forward rush of a story, told in the first-person present, that threatens to vanish as quickly as it appears if one doesn’t slow down.

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Interpreter of Maladies (1999)

 

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One of the reasons I read is to break the threat of ego- and ethnocentrism. As Nabokov advises, we should not select our reading material based on what most closely reflects ourselves[1]; or, as Yale professor Amy Hungerford puts it, we should read to find out about who we are not[2]. Upon these twin coils of mature reading, I welcome the works of writers like Jhumpa Lahiri, for what better way, as a reader, to gain sympathy for others than to glean from first-hand experience? As Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston do for the Chinese-American experience, so does Lahiri for the Indian-American experience in her Pulitzer Prize-winning debut short story collection Interpreter of Maladies.

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Holy the Firm (1977)

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“Write as if you were dying.” This is the admonishment Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard gives readers of her 1989 book The Writing Life. The grim truth behind this charge, she points out, is that we are all dying. What Dillard is getting at is that the writer should jettison anything that does not matter in the face of death. It’s great advice, so long as one doesn’t wish for a lucrative writing career. The advice hints at the debate between genre and literary fiction, traditional versus experimental writing. In Holy the Firm, Dillard directly addresses her audience: “Nothing is going to happen in this book.” Amusingly, the disclaimer comes a quarter of the way into the text, as if she suddenly remembered to point this out, as if she became aware that the reader, by this point, is wondering what exactly the book is. In one way, what this slim little volume is is the embodiment of her own advice.

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The Bughouse: The Poetry, Politics, and Madness of Ezra Pound (2017)

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As with studies of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, I am willing to follow any brave soul into the thickets of the famously difficult Cantos or the brackish writer behind them. The compounded (excuse the pun) difficulty with Pound, however, versus the perverted German nationalism posthumously ascribed to Hegel, is twofold: “…Pound’s difficulty lies not only in the challenge of how to read his poetry, but also in how to reconcile it with his life’s contradictions.” And his contradictions are many, as Daniel Swift shows. Like Richard Wagner[1], Joseph Conrad[2], and perhaps more closely Knut Hamsun, one encounters a bifurcation of mind upon contact with a deplorable artist’s great work. Yet, like the troubled Hollywood star, there is something that draws us into their lives, something that fascinates us and invites us to form an opinion however well or ill informed.

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