What I’m Reading:
John Eklund

October 6th, 2008 by EVENTS

My reading decisions are somewhat serendipitous. I jot down titles I notice in bookstores, or see reviewed, or hear about from friends. More often it’s one book that leads me to another. I didn’t deliberately dedicate September to moody, melancholy, lost-Europe, but I followed the literary threads and that’s where I ended up. Luckily, a treatise on the potato chip that a bookseller friend suggested rescued me from the gloom.

The Post-Office Girl by Stefan Zweig, trans. by Joel Rosenberg

I sometimes think you could limit your reading to the excellent New York Review Books Classics series and that would be more than enough?every title seems selected with exquisite taste and judgment. Thank them for keeping Stefan Zweig before us. Against a backdrop of economic desperation and class division in post-World War I Austria, a poor post office clerk meets up with an unemployed vet, and gets to see how the other half lives. It’s a short book, almost a thriller, and very unlike Beware of Pity, for which he’s better known. Zweig has a leisurely, almost Anita Brookner-like pace, and his sentences are very beautiful. Written in the thirties and never published in his lifetime, this book eerily depicts a fictional suicide which Zweig and his wife, sadly, enacted in 1942.
Read Jeff Waxman’s review of this title here.

In Europe: Travels Through the Twentieth Century by Geert Mak

The Dutch journalist sets out from Amsterdam on assignment from his newspaper and creates a sort of historical travelogue of the continent. He’s an expert popular historian but also has a great eye for contemporary detail. His mission was to find out whether there really is enough commonality among the nations and peoples of Europe to constitute a political entity. Along the way he fleshes out lots of stories that I mistakenly thought I knew, and he packs in diaries, newspaper clippings, interviews, bits and scraps. At times I felt like I was lost among Walter Benjamin’s convolutes in the Arcades Project. It’s really a joy.

A Perfect Waiter by Alain Claude Sulzer

There’s a bit of a Death in Venice quality to this, Sulzer’s first novel to be translated into English. Set in Switzerland in the sixties, a middle-aged waiter’s cramped little life is interrupted by a letter from his first love, who left for the US thirty years ago. It’s a very straightforward story, a touch melodramatic, but simply and elegantly told. And what a great title.

On Empire by Eric Hobsbawm

There are so few old-fashioned Marxists around these days, especially ones who can write, so every new Hobsbawm is a treat. This short essay collection is a big picture look at the inequities inherent in the rush to globalization. Hobsbawm has been around long enough to be able to say with some authority that this is really just a blip we’re going through, and that within the next twenty years progress toward economic justice will resume. That’s reassuring! The villain in his story is, as always, US imperialism and its interventionist tendencies.

The Polish Officer by Alan Furst

Funny how some spies are romanticized, admired and celebrated in our popular culture, while with others (the Rosenbergs) outrage is the only acceptable reaction. Historical spy fiction is not one of my favorite genres but I got hooked on Furst awhile back, and he’s predictably great. His genius is being able to lard his plots with so much vivid atmospheric detail that reading the book is bracing. And the late thirties is the perfect time for a good spy caper.

On a Day Like This by Peter Stamm, trans. by Michael Hofmann

I’m always a sucker for a well-told mid-life crisis story. The main character in this novel by the Swiss author abruptly quits his job and abandons his life. (I’d recommend John Lanchester’s fine novel Mr. Phillips for a slightly different but equally satisfying take on the same subject.) This meditation on deep yearning and self-discovery is spare and taut, but there’s a sensitive and intimate quality as well. I will definitely be reading his other books, which is the ultimate recommendation I suppose.

The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost & Found by Mary Beard

Although Pompeii may be the most famous archeological site in the world, surprisingly little has been written about daily life in the town Vesuvius destroyed in 79 CE. It’s sort of a cliché, but the “city frozen in time” image is really the thing that fascinates. Street life, home life, interior decoration, politics, commerce, and sex- it’s all here. Mary Beard is of course an eminent classicist, but she’s also a fine writer. She manages to ace what we general readers want smart academics to do?to take a subject they know lots about and make it clear and appealing for those of us who know little.

John Eklund is a former bookseller and a sales rep for Harvard University Press, The MIT Press, and Yale University Press.
He’s a Co-op member.

Posted in Book Lists

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