Wednesday, May 2, 2012

April Reading


Here's what I read in April.
Now that national poetry month is over, it's time to get back into the prose.  Here's what I read this month.

1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell


The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was a birthday present given to me by my friend Kelly over at A Certain Solitary Pleasure.  I'm fortunate to have friends such as Kelly to give me book like this one, because I never would have read it otherwise.  First of all, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is recent--only two years old--and unlikely to end up either in my donated books pile or at the used bookstore that I always shop at, and those have been my two main sources of books for the last year or so.

Also, this book, (I'm avoiding typing the unpalatable title again) is set off the coast of Nagasaki, on an artificial island called Dejima, starting in 1799.  No way am I going to choose to read a book set in 18th century Japan unless a friend gets me started down that road.  

The book weighs in at 479 pages, but it seems even more massive than that.  There is an enormous cast of characters in this one, some Japanese, many Dutch, with a few Irishmen and Americans thrown in.  The characters are speaking either Japanese or Dutch, and translating for one another, and getting things wrong.  The book makes your head spin, and requires utmost concentration at times.  David Mitchell is prodigiously talented, and he weaves dozens of plotlines and characters together to create an intricately designed plot.   

The plot has so many convolutions, though, that I found it hard to concentrate on much else, and I am afraid I missed many of the intricacies of the novel.  It definitely asks for a second reading, but after spending nearly a month reading it (no joke!  a month!), I am not planning on starting it again any time soon.

Also, I did not like the title.  Here are some suggestions for new titles:

  • Oh, Dejima!
  • Midwifery Made Easy
  • There Are Dutch Dudes Speaking Japanese and Vice Versa

2. A Night to Remember, by Walter Lord

Like everyone else, I got caught up in the Titanic hoopla this April.  It started off when I read the article "Unsinkable: Why We Can't Let Go of the Titanic" by Daniel Mendelsohn, in the April 16 issue of the New Yorker.  If you haven't already had enough coverage of the anniversary of the big ship going down, you should have a look at the article.  It stresses the importance of Walter Lord's 1955 A Night to Remember as a definitive account of the incident, as well as a classic in non-fiction.

I read A Night To Remember in ninth grade and remember it as being one of the purest joys I've ever had with a book.  (I read Captains Courageous that same year and loved it, too.  And I got into both Rubber Soul and Revolver.  I was skinny, slow, and didn't know any girls, but at least I was reading and listening to some great stuff!)  As soon as I read Mendelsohn's article, I immediately grieved the loss of my old paperback copy of A Night to Remember.  So I went on amazon.com to buy a replacement, only to find the original old copy in the closet of my childhood home.  Now I have two copies!  Woo-hoo!

A Night to Remember should be required reading across the country.  The book moves so swiftly and is told so powerfully that I bet it could convert even the most reluctant readers out there.  There are a boatload of unforgettable people (get it?) all caught up in one of the defining moments of the century, and Lord's research and narrative skills are imperative.  Here I was, aged 35, re-reading a book I read in high school, and my heart was literally racing.  It really was.

So, if you want to pick up a book that is promised to captivate you from the first to the last, you could do worse than A Night to Remember by Walter Lord. 

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