Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Whew, it’s called child care. And I finally have enough to give me time for work and a few hours of reading and writing.

So…books. What are we reading this summer?

A month or so ago I saw an article about Adam Thirwell’s The Delighted States and I got so excited I ordered the book right away. It came two weeks ago and I finally got the chance to sit down with it over the weekend. This is my kind of book. It focuses on literature AND translation AND the wonderful, sublime connection between writers and translators and ordinary people and readers and objects. It’s clever and funny and serious. Thirwell is clearly in love with language and with how writers manifest their own unique obsession with language. The book hops from one classic to the next, from one writer to another, finding similarities and lovely little gems of intertextuality. Reading The Delighted States feels a bit like watching a literary parade while a brilliant and chatty friend at your elbow tells you all you ever wanted to know about each book, each writer, each character.

For my French book club I am reading the newest Maryse Condé, Les Belles Tenebreuses. When we met last week to discuss Ella Maillart’s novel La Voie Cruelle, one of the members told me she’d already read the Condé and hated it. She said it was badly written, something which surprised me so much I started the book that evening. I’ve been a Condé admirer since grad school when I read and enjoyed her Moi, Tituba, Sorcière, where she re-imagines what the Salem witch trials must have been like for a slave woman accused of sorcery. I also read and studied her first novel Heremakhonon which examines cultural displacement through a unique back-to-Africa love story.

I’m only thirty or so pages into Les Belles Tenebreuses and the style is different from what I remember of Condé’s other work. There is an intrusive and authoritative author/narrator who speaks to the reader from time to time. I find it a little jarring, but I’m not far enough into the book to see whether this voice will serve a purpose. Which it may. Otherwise, the story is curious (embalming, terrorism, love story) and I’m eager to see where she is going.

Finally, I’m reading my first John Updike novel, Villages. I’ve read many upon many Updike short stories and I consider him to be one of the great greats, in the sense that his writing is so confident, so worked and detailed; he uses his words effectively and ingeniously, transforming a purportedly exclusive experience into something universal and collective. But I’m also often left with the feeling that his writing is overwritten. He packs so much into the small moments and descriptions, sometimes I want to say, ‘come on, I get it, let’s move on.’ There is a definite Updike style, and I need to be in the mood for it to enjoy it.

What are you all reading to start the summer? Anything good?

14 Responses to “wednesday reading notes”

  1. Lilian Nattel

    The only one of my translators I got to talk with was the Dutch translator of The River Midnight and it was a wonderful exchange. I just finished reading The Quickening Maze, which I’ll review shortly, and have started a book (in English) of Yiddish stories by women.

  2. Colleen

    I’m about a third of the way through The Elegance of the Hedgehog, but the big news is I’m about to start the unabridged Tale of Genji!!!

  3. smithereens

    Hurray for childcare! I’ve just finished a collection of short stories by Francine Prose, it was great!

  4. nicole

    The Thirlwell sounds fun. I first encountered him a few months back; he wrote the foreword to my Hesperus Edition of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin and I quite liked it.

    As for me, I’ve developed quite the comfort-reading-mystery addiction over the past week. Who knows what next.

  5. verbivore

    Lilian – I’m glad you got to have some connection with one of your translators. It must have been interesting to see his/her perspective. Did it change how you thought about your work at all?

    Colleen – Can’t wait to hear what you think of the unabridged Genji!!! You make me want to join the fun and start reading. Which translation are you going with?

    Smithereens – Yes, three cheers for childcare. I wish Switzerland would get its act together, I’m still on three waiting lists for a daycare, but that is another story! I’ll check your blog for a write-up on the Prose stories, I’ve been meaning to read her.

    Nicole – He’s kind of all over the place at the moment, just read a not-so-kind review of his newest novel (Writes like Flaubert but subject matter is crap – or something like that, from the New Yorker, did you see this?) but I’d still like to sample his fiction.

  6. Anthony

    The Thirlwell has been on a shelf for ages but I keep forgetting to read it. Everything I’ve read about it tells me I will love it.

    Bah, Updike. Glad I passed quickly through that phase: the Rabbit series is worth the price of admission, barely.

    I’m planning a Joycean summer, currently reading A Portrait, to be followed by some grounding criticism, and then into Ulysses.

  7. Study Window

    I’m just finishing the latest Penelope Lively novel, ‘Family Album’ which is very easy reading but also has some extremely interesting things to say about the palimpsest nature of identity. I’m very interested in the Thirlwell, however, and will really have to try and get hold of a copy.

  8. Care

    Before I even read your entire post, I jumped over to goodreads to find out more about this Delighted States book (to see if over my head?) and somehow clicked over to someone who reviewed this (and who LOVED it) but then compared her books with mine then read what she thinks of David Foster Wallace and remembered I needed to get back and read the rest of your post here. Now I want to read DFW and also Penelope Lively (palimpsest nature of identity? cool.) and suppose I should read Updike’s Rabbit book(s). So now my whole summer is planned! 🙂
    See how influential you are?

  9. Mel u

    I am currently reading Bliss and Other Stories by Katherine Mansfield, Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf and The Waiting Years by Enchi Fumiko

  10. verbivore

    Anthony – Hooray for a Joycean summer! Thirwell has quite a bit on Joyce, which makes me want to go back and read more.

    Study Window – I’ve read one Penelope Lively, for children, something about monsters. It was light and fun and I look forward to reading it with my daughter. But I’ll have to try her work for adults sometime soon. Do you have a suggestion where to start?

    Care – You make me laugh! Talk about influential, you reminded me today that I need to read some more Wharton. I’m with you on DFW, I’d really like to read him and can’t believe it has taken me so long to get around to it.

    Mel – I look forward to hear about you think about The Waiting Years. Excellent book, in my opinion. But I love Enchi anyway, so I wasn’t a hard sell.

  11. Stefanie

    The thirwell sounds great! I have added to my neverending list of books I want to read. I hope the conde book ends up being good. And I look forward to your thoughts on Updike. I’ve not read much of him and always tell myself I should read more but you know how that goes.

  12. Study Window

    Try ‘Consequences’, definitely one of Lively’s best.

    Not Thirlwell to be had either in the public or University systems. What are libraries coming to?

  13. nicole

    No, I didn’t read that review.

    I’m another Penelope Lively fan. I liked Consequences, which I think I wrote about…ah yes, here. But it was Moon Tiger that I read first and positively loved. I would start there.

  14. verbivore

    Stefanie – Well, I wouldn’t start with Villages for Updike. I’m thinking one of his earlier works is a better introduction. I’ll go there once I’ve finished Villages.

    Study Window – Thanks for the suggestion for Lively. I’ll see if I can get it on Bookmooch. I can’t believe there’s no Thirwell at your library…maybe it’s too soon? The book recently came out.

    Nicole – Thanks, thanks, thanks. Will get it.

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