It’s summer, and always a good time to plan a reading/watching/listening list. Here are some suggestions that you might want to consider. I’ve got books, music, and film: something for everyone!
alphabet, by Inger Christensen
Originally titled Alfabet (1981)
Translated from the Danish by Susanna Nied
The common wisdom is that something gets lost in all translations, and that poetry stands to lose more than fiction in this regard. (I take my personal stance on this from the great Nicanor Parra–that is, the idea of anti-translations: since true translations are impossible in principle, the task of a translator is to reinterpret.) Nevertheless, I think we can all agree that you can always find something in good poetry, and with that frame of mind, I recommend this brilliant collection by the Danish poet Inger Christensen. With masterful control and brilliant imagery, this is moving, frightening, and ultimately inspiring poetry.
Just Kids, by Patti Smith
Patti Smith is awesome. No one can ever change my mind on that. This book quite nearly matches her overall awesomeness. A poetic memoir focussing on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, the book brings with it such sincerity as to approach purity. To put simply, it is a book that reminded me of the possibility of beauty in each of us.
Small Memories (or Memories of my Youth), by José Saramago
Originally titled As Pequenas Memórias (2006)
Translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa
A very different kind of memoir, this covers the late Nobel laureate’s early years in his distinctively fabulist and grandfatherly way. Beyond being a testament of his extraordinary abilities as a storyteller, it is also a fascinating book full of humour, compassion, and a characteristically deep and nuanced appreciation of life.
Ghosts, by César Aira
Originally titled Los Fantasmas (1990)
Translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
César Aira is a sort polarising figure in the world of contemporary literature. Supporters point out his amazing imagination, his at times truly remarkable powers with language, and the juxtaposition between the complexity and brevity of his novels. Critics, on the other hand, are often able to point out certain fatal flaws in his writing. Sometimes he seems completely frivolous, and sometimes he leaps into banal pseudo-philosophical litanies, and the like. Always a different fatal flaw.
For me, he is special simply because I can’t think of anyone else like him in this day and age. For the uninitiated, don’t think of his writing the way you would with other writers, and don’t think of his novels as traditional novels. Go in without those expectations and you may just find yourself rewarded with some of the most imaginative writing in contemporary literature.
The Long Goodbye, by Raymond Chandler
Arguably the greatest of the Chandler books (though we could have a debate on that all day), The Long Goodbye is so good that it hurts. Philip Marlowe returns in a mystery that involves a drunkard, a war, a 5000-dollar bill, and of course a dangeours woman. It’s always a good time to read some Chandler.
Stitches, by David Small
This autobiographical graphic novel is one of the best books I’ve read recently. At its heart is the story of throat cancer and how the author literally lost his voice. Affecting, Kafkaesque, and gorgeously illustrated, Stitches is an example of the graphic medium at its very best.
City of Small Blessings, by Simon Tay
I read less local fiction than I would like to, but let me just say that we could do with more writing like this. Simon Tay’s excellent novel deals with themes of time, modernisation, generation gaps, love, and loss.
The Your Face Tomorrow trilogy, by Javier Marías
Consisting of: Fever and Spear (2004); Dance and Dream (2006); and Poison, Shadow and Farewell (2009)
Originally titled Tu rostro mañana
Consisting of Fiebre y lanza (2002); Baile y sueño (2004); and Veneno y sombra y adiós (2007)
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa
The longest book on this list (well, technically three books, but a collected edition will be out this year), this is the main course on my own summer reading list. Marías’s sprawling literary project, translated by the ever-brilliant Margaret Jull Costa, features a translator–what else?–embroiled in a spy-novel plot.
Five Modern Nō Plays, by Yukio Mishima
Translated from the Japanese by Donald Keene
I’m not the biggest Mishima fan (not in the sense that I have no interest in his work, but that I think you can always find someone who is a bigger fan), but I absolutely adore his theatre work for the way they make seemingly outmoded forms appear so relevant and refreshing again. The five plays collected here reinterpret the Nō form while preserving a respect for its traditions and rules of engagement.
The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser, directed by Werner Herzog
Originally titled Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle
Werner Herzog’s classic film about the German legend of Kaspar Hauser was my first ever Herzog film and one of my permanent favourites. A lyrical and philosophical film, Herzog presents a mystery of a man through a series of striking images, and leaves us to ponder the relevance of his struggles and his dreams to our own lives.
Still Life, directed by Jia Zhangke
Originally titled 《山峡好人》
Jia Zhangke is one of the best directors working today, and Still Life shows exactly why. Stately, melancholic, and gorgeously photographed, the film is centred around a coal-miner in search of his divorced wife and a nurse in search of her husband against the backdrop of the Three Gorges Dam development. Among other things, it is a meditation on the infringement caused by human presence in the immensity of nature, the tragedies and blessings of modernisation, and the struggle to preserve the most basic relationships in the face of these forces.
Millennium Actress, directed by Satoshi Kon
Originally titled 千年女優
This film is vintage Satoshi Kon, who admittedly didn’t direct too many projects but was nevertheless one of the greatest directors to grace the anime industry. Millenium Actress is a post-modern look at the constructedness of our lives (through the lens of film, in this case) and also a love story that will move even the stone-hearted. It encapsulates a good portion of the genius of a director who continues to be a great creative influence in my own work and was simply gone too soon.
Charade, directed by Stanley Donen
Starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, this immensely entertaining film is at once suspence, romance and comedy in the finest tradition of Hitchcock. A wonderfully lively script, two stars who are certainly very easy on the eyes, and an excellent grasp of suspense combine to make this a great summer film.
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Originally titled ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ
Last year’s winner of the Palme d’Or is a film both elliptical and strange. Centrally dealing with the character of Uncle Boonmee and his various ambiguous past lives, this film trades in beauty, horror, humour, and mystique. Most of all, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film resists easy interpretation or classification, and it is in this open-endedness and complexity that we may find its greatest beauty.
Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), by Janelle Monáe
2007, 2008 (special edition)
O Janelle Monáe. It is sometimes hard to believe that you aren’t really a cyborg girl with your multitude of irresistible talents. Having released her excellent first full album last year, let’s take this summer to take a look back at where it all started. A wonderfully strange mix of Motown and science fiction, this EP is the perfect introduction to the work of an incredible musician.
Modern Times, by Bob Dylan
The third in Dylan’s later trilogy, Modern Times exudes the poise, composure, and venom of a master of the craft in his late years. Injecting new life into apparently outdated music genres (much like Mishima and theatre), drawing upon–who would have thought?–Ovid, and performed with utter clarity, Modern Times is a monument in modern music.
Symphony No. 9, performed by the Berliner Philharmoniker and conducted by Claudio Abbado
Composed by Gustav Mahler
Probably my favourite of the Mahler symphonies, this particular interpretation is really quite good, though we too could debate this all day. In any case, if you’ve never heard Symphony No. 9 before, there’s no excuse. And if you have, well, there isn’t one either.
w h o k i l l, by tUnE-yArDs
My favourite music discovery of the year so far (though Anna Calvi comes a close second), my first exposure to the music of tUnE-yArDs hit me like a gust of wind. Compelling from start to finish, the music here is a powerful statement of individual expression.
A Night at the Village Vanguard, by Sonny Rollins
Probably one of the greatest live albums of all time, this record manages to capture the magic and intimacy of one of jazz’s true masters.