Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The lives of books

Just before the holidays a friend and colleague who knows a great deal more than I do about the Balkans -- historically, linguistically, and in literary dimensions -- gave me a book I don't believe I would ever have found or picked-up otherwise.

She thus added to my personal store of proof that people find and read books that are recommended by people they know and/or trust (a widely-held belief); and more so when those books take a while to show their value (i.e., when it's not the first pages read in a bookstore that 'make the sale').

But it also happened that reading My Father's Books by Luan Starova crossed currents in a curious way with a chapbook of Glenn Ingersoll's poetry that I happened to obtain from the author himself on the same day I finished reading Starova's volume.

First, here's what I wrote about My Father's Books on Goodreads:
I had a hard time finding my way into this volume, slim as it is. The author's abstractions eluded me, as if they were written in code that could only be deciphered by those who knew in their own blood what "his Balkan fate" -- referring to the author's father -- means. Only in Part Two, as Luan Starova's four years in Constantinople on the cusp of the Ottoman Empire's collapse are described, did I begin to unlock the quiet, dogged stoicism of a protagonist bound to a thankless and likely futile task of charting a path through decades of foreseen and bitterly-experienced pain of a subject nation as the empire that held it in thrall for centuries dissolves. As My Father's Books finally opened to me, I found in the volume a mystery in meticulousness I first encountered in Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red, crossed with the melancholy inherent in the ending of great historical movement that Joseph Roth evokes in The Radetsky March and The Emperor's Tomb. [...]
My Father's Books is organized around the core characteristic of Starova's father, who (unless I missed it) is never named in the text: that he lived the richest aspects of his life in books he collected; studied; carried from place to place through a lifetime of exiles, one after the next; and considered deeply in relation to questions of identity, nation, and (collapsing) empire over the course of his adult life. It unfolds as a series of briefly sketched episodes, one or two pages, occasionally one or two more than that. From the book's blurb on the U. Wisconsin Press website:
Weaving a story from the threads of his parents’ lives from 1926 to 1976, [the author] offers a child’s-eye view of personal relationships in shifting political landscapes and an elegiac reminder of the enduring power of books to sustain a literate culture.
And here is a passage from the penultimate section of the novel, titled Time Discovered:
Those books would follow my father through the collapse of several kingdoms and empires. The books outlived eras; they outlived my father as well. I remained powerless to interpret them; I followed a different route through other languages and cultures. Yet, I know very well that much of my father remains in them -- his spirit, his unspoken admonitions and advice. The books contain streams of time not yet past. With these books one could collect the currents of past times. These books enchant because they stand outside of time. They revived within me my father's illusions and his powerlessness to build from them the truth. I do not know where these books will end. When our life ends, what of us remains in the books that we have read? ...
So on Saturday I was a couple of dozen pages from finishing My Father's Books when I stopped by the Elmwood branch of the Berkeley Public Library, where Glenn Ingersoll happened to be working that day. I know Glenn from quite a few years back, when we were both a part of the East Bay chapter of the political group/movement Queer Nation and Glenn worked in Doe Library, on the UC Berkeley campus, where I often retreated to work on a novel project after my work for a living was done for the day. On Saturday, I congratulated Glenn on recent completion of his years-long endeavor Thousand, a "long piece" built of one hundred words written each day for a thousand days and published on his blog, Love Settlement.

We talked about our various projects, past and present, and he ducked into the back of the library to fetch a copy of his chapbook Fact, published last year by Avantacular Press. I bought Fact, and read it, interleaving a run of Glenn's short poems with a few pages from Starova's novel. Many of the poems in Fact are self-referential. Others are written in the voice of the poem itself.

The correspondences were startling within the coincidental frame of my reading, alternating as I was between these books. Contrast the end of passage from My Father's Books excerpted above:
I do not know where these books will end. When our life ends, what of us remains in the books that we have read? ...
with this short poem a few pages from the end of Glenn's chapbook:
The poem is sleeping.
You are one of its dreams.
See what I mean? ...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

First sentences in fiction
Four eyes: 4 ways Google Glass might change the world
Parallel lives in fiction: Murdoch, Barnes, the Man Booker prize
Old books, new insights


  1. I like the photo of the hand holding the book next to the glowing laptop screen.

    Fact has been in the works since Andrew solicited the manuscript almost two years ago. He'd read a few of the poems on my first website more than ten years ago and now that he was running his own press wanted to bring out a book. Though the copyright is 2012 the first batch of books arrived just last Thursday. The copy you bought from me had only been in my possession two days.

  2. @Glenn -- Glad you like the photo. It was my own attempt at self-referential 'art' ;-) ... all hopped up on Cafe Milano's espresso.

    I had no idea I was reading a collection that was so fresh-minted (in the poems' published form, I mean)! That makes me a cutting-edge reviewer, right???