More books from 2011.
Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec
Easily one of the best books I’ve read in the past five or six years. Perec was a member of Oulipo, and this book was written in accordance with a million constraints he had set himself, among which was moving, narratively, among the apartments in a building based on the Knight’s Tour progression/problem, and using certain elements in each chapter (e.g. paintings/sculpture, characters’ reading material, furniture, flooring, etc.). I’ve never read and enjoyed as much pure description in my life. You will know 100 more words related to furniture by the time you finish this book than when you started, and will be a better person for that knowledge. Corollary to that: I looked up so many words while reading this book, but, while that is occasionally annoying with other, less entertaining novels or prose, with Life it felt like it was part of the game–a moment of pause for the reader before moving on to something else. PACKED with mini-stories, too many to count, on the level of something like “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa,” ranging from the fantastic to the eye-tiringly mundane, some of which mini-stories are in fact allusions to other stories by other authors, or to whole novels, or are just straight-up wholesale representations of those stories (Kafka’s “First Sorrow” is right there, pretty much word for word, in the book). Affecting to the point where it became tough to read at times, always fascinating, often funny, this is one of those books that could really have gone on forever, the care and effort expended by Perec in writing this is unimaginable. There are levels and levels to this, close to the kind of white dwarf density in “Ulysses,” but more on-the-move, more like the extra pleasure of DVD easter eggs than the grim, almost mathematical challenge of Joyce’s references and allusions. The main plot, touched on intermittently throughout the entire book, is wonderful, totally fragmented for reasons that are clear once you grasp the main project (or look at the 1987 hardcover’s jacket). You can pick this up and put it down, but it will stay with you, the little stories, the big story, the words, the furniture, the food, the jobs, the clothes and jewelry, the families. Here are the words that stuck with me: heteroclite, ferrules, theorbo, marquetry, parallelepipedic.
The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
Mason is clearly some kind of polymath, having written this beautiful book, in part, during lunch breaks from his job as a computer scientist at a Silicon Valley company. I bought this in New York at the Madison Square Garden Borders for nothing (this was during Borders’ long meltdown) and read it in the couple hours (+3 after) it took to ride the train back to Philly. Incrediblly diverting. Similar, in a way, to Christopher Logue’s poetic reinterpretation of the Iliad (weird that not many reviews mention that, though maybe I read the wrong reviews). Easy read, engaging, some parts more so than others, though overall great if you love both the Odyssey and Borges.