Friday, January 14, 2011

Favorite of the Imagination

Lewis Carroll

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank and of having nothing to do: once or twoice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, "and what is the use of a book," thought Alice, "without pictures or conversations?" (Opening lines of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland)

Lewis Carroll died on this day in 1898, aged sixty-five. He has been a favorite author of mine since I first read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland while I was still in grade school.  Fortunately the edition I had included the beautiful illustrations by Tenniel unlike the books poor Alice found her sister reading.  No one made me read Carroll and I grew to enjoy both Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass.  There was much poetry interlaced among the prose of these stories but Carroll also published several collections of poetry — parodies, occasional poems, and the sort of playful, oddball verse that abounds in his more famous books. Many of the collected poems reflect Carroll’s love of words and word games; some of them seem written as if in hope of getting boxed in by a rhyme scheme, in order to find a way to wriggle out. In “Melancholetta,” the speaker laments that his sister — Carroll had several — is forever weeping and woe-ing. In a brotherly attempt to end her sniffling, he sets up an evening out — dinner and a play, all in cheery company:

I asked three gay young dogs from town
To join us in our folly,
Whose mirth, I thought, might serve to drown
My sister's melancholy:
The lively Jones, the sportive Brown,
And Robinson the jolly.

As the appetizers are trotted in, the lively Jones does his conversational best, the brother throws up his hands, and the tap of despair drips on:

Vainly he strove, with ready wit,
To joke about the weather -
To ventilate the last 'ON DIT' -
To quote the price of leather -
She groaned "Here I and Sorrow sit:
Let us lament together!"
I urged "You're wasting time, you know:
Delay will spoil the venison."
"My heart is wasted with my woe!
There is no rest--in Venice, on
The Bridge of Sighs!" she quoted low
From Byron and from Tennyson.

A good place to find these and other of Carroll's writings is in the Modern Library edition of The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll.

Top Ten Reads of 2010

My list of favorite books read in 2010 (updated from earlier in the year) includes more than three dozen books (and not everything I read made that list).  But I thought I would try to whittle the list down to the top ten that I read last year.  So here it is in no particular order:

1. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
The best dystopian novel I have read in a long time and a reminder of the power of this author to impress this reader.
2. Summer in Baden-Baden by Leonard Tsypkin. 
Tsypkin's novel mesmerizes with two stories that enthrall with emotion and truth. A taut gem of historical fiction and a doppelganger of style.
3. The Knife Man by Wendy Moore.
Wendy Moore's biography of Dr. John Hunter, The Knife Man, captures one man's contribution to the Enlightenment and modern surgical medicine.
4. Time Regained by Marcel Proust
The final volume of In Search of Lost Time chronicles the years of World War I, when, as M. de Charlus reflects on a moonlit walk, Paris threatens to become another Pompeii. Years later, after the war's end, Proust's narrator returns to Paris, where Mme. Verdurin has become the Princesse de Guermantes. He reflects on time, reality, jealousy, artistic creation, and the raw material for literature-his past life.
5. Istanbul: Memories and the City by Orhan Pamuk.
Capturing a sense of the Istanbul of memory and tradition, Pamuk  juxtaposes it with the Istanbul as seen by outsiders, especially the literary lights that visited Istanbul over the years, Pamuk creates a rich texture for his story of the memories and city. This is a unique look at one of the great centers of civilization. 
6. Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.
Aurelius presents the tenets that underlie the stoic philosophy he learned from his teachers including a discussion of the importance of your duty both to your own nature and that of the whole universe..
7. The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano. 
While all fiction emanates from the imagination and this novel is rare that a work successfully mimics the language of dreams..
8. Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum. 
The story of a man of more than fifty years old who caps his career with a world-spanning sailing trip that still has power to grip the reader's imagination today. .
9. Call Me by Your name by Andre Aciman. 
With emphasis on the erotic, he has created an almost Proustian meditation on time and desire, a love letter, an invocation in words that one must call simply "beautiful". 
10. Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford.
In a narrative beginning before the war and ending after the armistice, Ford's project is to situate an unimaginable cataclysm within a social, moral and psychological complexity. The result is a modern literary project that rivals those of Anthony Powell's A Dance to the Music of Time or, more aptly, Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy.

I am reluctant to stop at ten best since I enjoyed many other books during the year, but this is enough of a retrospective for one cold January day.  Let's all move on to the great reads of the new year!

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