Wednesday, December 24, 2008

recent books

"Metamorphosis" and Other Stories, by Franz Kafka - These stories took a little while to grow on me, but once I accepted them for what they were, they were quite enjoyable. Something along the lines of concept stories (like The Invisible Man, which can be summarized in two sentences but rambles on somehow for nearly 200 pages) but with more interesting plot, less ulterior motive, and in shorter, more appropriately sized portions. "Metamorphosis" was actually the least enjoyable story by far; I would much more highly recommend "In The Penal Colony" and "A Report to an Academy", and, somewhat out of place in this collection but thoroughly enjoyable, the short meditations from Contemplations.

He also has a unique knack for building the perfect opening run-on sentence, which sets up an entire scene and mood, and leaves the kicker for the satisfying end. Unfortunately, this works better in German, where it is possible (and common) to build up a suspenseful string of sentence fragments and drop the verb(s) at the end. For example, translated with respect to word order, "As Gregor Samsa one morning out of restless dreams awoke, he found himself in his bed into a monstrous vermin transformed." (The introduction to the book actually commented on this and other translation issues and on Kafka's contemporary Prague German/Jewish culture, and I was more riveted by this than a lot of the stories. I should just read nonfiction.)

The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera - I had high expectations for this book, and they were not quite met. The contemplative description and character analysis built into the story is indeed absolutely fantastic, but the story itself is mediocre and (a particular pet peeve of mine) the main characters are not likeable. Two secondary characters, Sabina and Franz, were more compelling but were only followed briefly, and I suspect this brevity is what made me like them - Kundera did not give me a chance not to. While I personally loved the philosophizing and off-plot rambling, I would not recommend this book to anyone who is prone to bouts of depressed or disillusioned nihilism. Good quote, among many: "Happiness is a longing for repetition."

Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald - I only read the collection of 9 stories, not 43, but I'll probably look for the other 34 sometime soon, despite the very weak start of the collection with the uninteresting and tedious "The Diamond As Big As the Ritz". While certainly not profound high literature, Fitzgerald deftly grabs you and pulls you into the world of very relatable characters and clever plotlines. The characters are from a very specific world - early 20th century upperclass New Englanders, gentlemen from the Ivy League and the ladies they court, and occasionally aristocrats from the parallel culture in the south. Despite having little or nothing in common with them, I feel that I know them well and care about their fate. I think if I were from that culture more closely, I would be at least as fond of Fitzgerald as I am of Garrison Keillor, who tells similar stories (but with consistent down-home realism, unlike Fitzgerald) about the culture I do feel personally tied to. In particular I would recommend "Bernice Bobs Her Hair", "Head and Shoulders", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button", and "May Day".

In listening to these books on my looooooong (relative to expectations) drive back from Berkeley, I discovered I like books on tape much more than I thought I did. Usually I'm much too exclusively visual to focus on spoken words, and too impatient to listen to them speak so slowly, but with nothing else to concentrate on in the car and a broken radio, it was very nice. And since my walkman is a piece of crap and plays everything too fast, they talked at a less tedious pace too (although in chipmunk voices.)