Friday, December 08, 2006

What I'm Reading



Never just one book at a time. The regular intake of newspapers and magazines goes without further mention. This year has been the ongoing poem-a-day book -- not uplifting stuff, historical. Last night's poem was part II of Gerard Manly Hopkin's "Wreck of the Deutschland" - hardly light reading. Appropriate because that was the anniversary of the wreck. I've learn, or at least been touched by, a lot of history this year through reading this book of poems. I also dip into the Love Poems by Women anthology I have; there' s little of the Barrett-Browning "How Do I Love Thee...." stuff. It's much harder headed and is truly both international and spans more than 2000 years going back to Sappho.
The two big books at the moment are GENGHIS KHAN and RIVER HORSE. Wandering around Lijiang alone one afternoon despairing of finding any interesting shops -- all the same jewelry, Chinese medicine, stuff -- I actually found a book store! And in the back a small selection of books in English. I found a nifty little book about Lijiang itself with pieces of information I had not yet gleaned - among which was a note that Genghis had been there. Which I found unlikely but perhaps I'll find it is so. Anyway, near that book was the Genghis biography which I bought. Here are two pictures of GK -- book cover and one which is seen often in UlanBaator.



The iron faced warrior, the cover of the book, is appropriate. Until I went to Mongolia, I thought of Genghis and his hordes as neutron bombs on horseback. Man does not use that analogy but, indeed they were. I'm deep into his conquests at this point. Sheer greed and primitive ideas of honor seem to have driven him. I've just read a sickening chapter that describes Genghis at Baghdad and Merv and other Islamic Silk Road cities in Central Asia. He may not have invented genocide but he probably practiced it to a degree never equaled before or since. His soldiers became killing machines; often they killed everyone in a city except for the artisans and occasional women wanted for the general's enjoyment.
The other Genghis, a gentle old sage, is the law giver. This picture was painted some thirty years after Genghis'' death {no notes when the iron face was cast] when his grandsons were portraying him as the great unifier, the founder of a Chinese dynasty. Since being in Mongolia I have wanted to know more facts about Genghi. I'm certainly getting them, the book, mercifully, is very readable. Man tries to calculate the conflicting stories and numbers of people killed and so on, tries to piece out motives and to be matter of fact in a way that is not politically correct these days. He gives this mass butcherer simple straight forward reasons for what he did. There may be truth in his approach, people were less self-aware, more direct in their actions in the early 1200s. They actually did not think like we think, I hope no one ever again thinks like Genghis thought.

My night table book is, by contrast. a quiet, peaceful telling of traveling from New York harbor, all the way across the United States to the Pacific - with only very short portages - by boat, a two-person dory, to be exact. It is by William Least Heat-Moon whose book BLUE HIGHWAYS I loved many years ago. RIVER HORSE is what he calls his little boat. I've just read the only portion where I can relate directly to his descriptions -- the section of the Ohio from Cincinnati to Madison, Indiana; an area I know from growing up not far from there. He is a quiet story teller, who has done his research about all the distance he travels and all the towns he passes. He is a very likeable man as is his pseudonymous partner. I love the juxtaposition of Central Asia on one reading table and Northern US on the other.

I took Orhan Palmuk's SNOW to China with me. He won the Nobel this year. I had previously tried to read MY NAME IS RED but gave up, lost in too much detail about miniature painting techniques. At a midpoint I gave up on SNOW also, I had read again and again about the politics of the radical Islamists, including the "headscarf girls", I had endured endless descriptions of the snow falling and of cafe conversations and felt I understood what he was saying about the political situation in Eastern Turkey. Jeff said he had been unable to get much further than I'd got. I gave up. But while she was visiting Leslie picked it up and was within 60 or so pages of the end when she put into her backpack for the plane ride home. She has an endurance for political polemic -- plowed through nearly all of Solzenitzhin's Gulag books. Although her usual choice is "urban fantasy fiction" - a genre I've never read. In fact my daughters' reading is a mystery to me. Rachel had lugged along a fat volume of the complete Mervin Peake GORMEGAST Trilogy. Undoubtedly some of this goes back to my Tolkein fit when they were adolescents - I read the entire LORD OF THE RINGS aloud to them ... twice.

1 comment :

Caitlin said...

Don't miss William Least Heat Moon's "Prairyerth" either - fascinating reading about one small county. I think Riverhorse is my favourite book so far, though...