Books Read 2013


I have been reading Kafka’s Amerika, considered one of his only comical works. The particular version of the book that I have was bought at an outdoor bookstore in Connecticut earlier this year for $1. I also bought several other Kafka books, as well as The Painted Veil and Dr. Zhivago (both of which are films I’ve seen. Really good ones, too; perhaps I render myself a 55-year-old woman by admitting that.)

Whimsically simple illustrations by Emlen Etting accompany the text in this version. I took a picture of the above page because it really caught me for a second. I like how simply it’s drawn in connection to Kafka’s description of this odd, yet funny, scene. Standing at the balcony of an apartment are two of the main characters, Delamarche and Brunelda. Delamarche is basically a French rogue who bums through American cities with an Irish mate called Robinson in search of work. He flirts with waitresses and drinks a lot of liquor. He gets in scuffles with the police but knows how to outrun them; he also has a tendency to manipulate people into doing things for him. And I guess he wears a bath robe with a scarf sometimes. And Brunelda…Brunelda’s a former singer, a fat one, who lies supine all day on a couch while Delamarche attends to her. The picture illustrates the first moment the narrator/main character looks up and sees his friend/enemy Delamarche, and the first time he sees Brunelda. So simple, but I love it.

This was another one of Kafka’s unfinished novels. It is surreal and strange like his other works, often crossing the line between dream and reality. It reminded me of the twisting, organic tales my friends and I used to come up with when we had our Barbies partake in epics set in ancient lands: the book is almost childish, but I’ve found it a relief to turn to it as a breather from the city and working life of adulthood.

I also finished Portrait of a Lady by Henry James: I read this whilst lying on the beach on my stomach in Hawaii. One of my mother’s co-workers approached me, squinted at the cover of my book and said, “What did you major in?” “Journalism.” “Right, I was going to say, you had to have majored in something like that if you’re reading Henry James on vacation.” Hm. Never thought of it that way, but okay sir.

Henry James


This book made me shed a tiny tear. It was hopeful in the beginning; it follows Isabel, an intellectual 23-year-old from New York who is taken abroad by her aunt in the late 1800’s. She is approached by countless suitors who ask for her hand in marriage; she turns them all down in order to reach her “potential.” Then she is fooled into marriage by someone else, she is caught in a Machiavellian ring and well, her dreams are suffocated and things just get depressing. We can leave it to James to remind us that realism ain’t no joke.

To pick up my mood after finishing Portrait of a Lady, I went through a short read on Buddhism by Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, The Heart of Understanding. I recommend reading this book, even if you’re not religious or spiritual. It’s written very simply and clearly, and is a good introduction to the main principles of Buddhism. One of my favorite parts of the book is when he describes the relationship between the rose and the garbage:

Defiled or immaculate. Dirty or pure. These are concepts we form in our mind. A beautiful rose we have just cut and placed in a vase is immaculate. It smells so good, so pure, so fresh. It supports the idea of immaculateness. The opposite is a garbage can. It smells horrible, and is filled with rotten things.

But that is only when you look on the surface. If you look more deeply you will see that in just five or six days, the rose will become part of the garbage. You do not need to wait five days to see it. If you just look at the rose, and you look deeply, you can see it now. And if you look into the garbage can, you see that in a few months its contents can be transformed into lovely vegetables, and even a rose….Looking at a rose you can see the garbage, and looking at the garbage you can see a rose. Roses and garbage inter-are. Without a rose, we cannot have garbage; without garbage, we cannot have a rose. They need each other very much. The rose and garbage are equal.

Which reminds me of a quote from Le Petit Prince: “What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well.”

thich nhat hanh and bell



Joe Sacco is a journalist and cartoonist, well-known for merging reportage with visual storytelling.  If anyone knows me well, this is my man.  On top of that, he lives in Portland.  Don’t think he could get any cooler!

Palestine is a graphic novel documenting Sacco’s 2-month experience interviewing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza during the first intifada.  It illustrates the power of visual journalism through in-depth interviews and cultural immersion as it covers a complex, nuanced issue.

Sacco leverages hard reporting, hundreds of interviews, and personal refugee camp experiences to document Palestine and the spirit of its people – from seeing Palestinians hurl rocks at Israeli soldiers, to staying in Palestinian hosts’ homes for days without a change of clothes.  Sacco’s reporting is complemented by powerful images drawn from his notes and sketchbooks, creating a fluid storyline, and ultimately almost a print version of a film documentary.  Sacco is less interested in getting the scoop, and more receptive to finding stories that will resonate long after breaking news has faded — and this is probably what draws me to his work (aside from the visual stuff, of course).

I love how he isn’t afraid to get his hands and boots dirty, as he digs in deep to let that environment sink in.  He truly captures the personalities of every person he meets there, often in just one or two comic panels.  He seems to cover nearly all aspects of Palestinian life and the conflict, from clashes between Israeli soldiers and the teenagers who hurl rocks in the muddy streets; the way prisoners create societal order within prisons; the different types of torture inflicted in these prisons; the way rain pours in through holes in the roofs of refugee camp huts; the way Palestinians all gather in shabby living rooms to guzzle down tea and discuss their woes; to the perspective and opinions of European-like Israelis living in the big cities, such as Jerusalem.

Like I said, Joe Sacco is my man.

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Mulisch is a Dutch half-Jew who considered this book his “magnum opus.”  He intertwines religious, historical, and scientific philosophy with a narrative, but the ideas take precedence over character development and writing style.  The book is a memento of sorts, of Mulisch and his best friend — their intellectual relationship and brotherly love, that is stronger than their familial or romantic ties with others.

It’s whimsical, clever, and informative; and full of historical and philosophical name-dropping.

One of the names mentioned is Piranesi, an 18th century Italian artist known for his atmospheric and imaginary architectural drawings.  One of the most interesting parts in the book is the description of “Somnium Quinti” (Quinten’s Dream), which is perhaps inspired by Piranesi’s work.  Quinten dreams of an “interior exterior” — that is, a strange architectural world/phenomenon where he is the only one present amongst a deserted, grey, silent city — stairs, balustrades, doorways and arches all intertwined and built on top of one another in an endless formation, similar to something Escher (or Piranesi) may have drawn.

It’s an interesting book, but not my favorite.

PiranesiPyramid the-gothic-arch

Quote Highlights:

“‘Shall I tell you something, Marilyn?  Believe it or not, I’m happy now.  Because I know that one day I shall look back at this evening in the knowledge that I was happy then.  Maybe you can only be happy via that mirror.  One day I’ll lie on my deathbed in the knowledge that I’ll never get up again–and then the thought of this evening may perhaps ease my death.’  He took a sip, but did not swallow.  He swished his tongue about in the wine, the smell of which now penetrated his nose from inside, and it seemed to him as though those few cubic inches in the darkness of his mind in some way contained the whole world, just as a drop of dew on a stalk of grass mirrors the landscape.”  (p. 183)


“She was a professional musician; she knew that making music was not about expressing emotions but about evoking them: and that could only succeed when it was done professionally–that is, dispassionately, like a surgeon operating…” (p. 79)


“But in politics the words themselves are the deeds,… There’s a bad smell about doing things verbally without doing anything.” (p. 416-417)


“It was orderly disorder, or disorderly order–it was a third possibility: an artistic, unplanned arrangement of countless things, which had obviously landed somewhere by chance, casually put down, forgotten… but which here formed an incomprehensible, harmonious creation, just as a swarm of birds at a certain moment took on a perfect shape that had not been composed by anyone.” (p. 365)


“Might it be that beauty was geometrically and musically calculable but that, in turn, perfection somehow diverged from it?  Just as a straight line drawn with a ruler was always somehow less than a straight line when Picasso drew it without a ruler?”

(Note: I have to say here, that ‘beauty’ and ‘perfection’ should be switched.  Perhaps perfection can be geometrically calculable, but it’s beauty that diverges from it…)


“With eyes closed, squeezed shut by the darkness, Onno and Quinten listened to the thin Gregorian chant, which hung in the air like a silver cobweb.  For Onno it exuded a desperate loneliness, a metallic freezing cold, which seemed to flow in through a chink straight from the Middle Ages — but for Quinten its harmonic unanimity evoked the image of ten or fifteen men, sinking after a shipwreck but holding each other to the last.” (p. 652)


“I have a feeling that the world is very complicated, but that there’s something behind it that is very simple and at the same time incomprehensible… a sphere.  Or a point.” (p. 601)


“But causal explanations can never be justifications for his behavior.  Man is not a machine, or simply an animal… That’s why behavior must be judged not causally but finally… Moreover, it’s an unacceptable insult to people who have had an equally rotten childhood and who do not commit crimes.” (p. 576)


“When he emerged from under the trees, his bare feet sinking into the sand, still warm from the sun, the moonless starry sky spread out with a gesture that he thought he could almost hear: like a marvelous chord played by the whole orchestra.  Compared to this, the sight of the heavens from his hotel room on the twenty-fifth floor, pale because of the city lights and the exhaust fumes, was a record on an old portable gramophone.” (p. 186)


“That was also inconceivable — too much had happened to him in the meantime for that: you couldn’t expect a stone that you’d let go of to return into your hand halfway, like a yo-yo.” (p. 542)


And, perhaps my favorite quote of the whole book (strangely): “Only when she was alone did she have the sense that she really existed; other people might be frightened precisely because of that sense, but she was frightened of other people because they stole it from her.” (p. 187)