The End of the Beginning

My Janus-Faced January Reading Program

As I wrote in my post dated January 1 of this year, I like to devote a whole month out of each year reading authors I have never read before. As this is the last day of my Januarius Project for January 2023, I thought I’d report on the authors I have discovered.

I have read eleven books this month. Six of them turned out to be excellent:

  • Thomas Hodgkin. Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire. I. The Visigothic Invasion. The first of eight volumes and 5,000 pages on the Barbarian Invasions. Excellent scholarship and exciting even!
  • Magda Szabo. The Door. A superb Hungarian novel about a writer and her domineering housekeeper.
  • Laszló F. Földényi. Melancholy. Another Hungarian author dealing with the history of melancholy in Western literature and civilization. Not an easy book to read, but worth the effort.
  • Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Writing Across the Landscape. Travel Journals 1960-2010. It’s always fascinating to see other places from a poet’s perspective.
  • Lucretius. The Nature of Things. An ancient Roman poet describes the science of his day—in verse. Reading Lucretius tells me we may have advanced in some respects, but not all.
  • Juan Rulfo. The Plain in Flames. Why have I not heard of this Mexican author before? Like John Webster, he could see the skull beneath the skin; and his short stories are powerful and gemlike.

The remaining five were merely really good:

  • Vilmos Kondor. Budapest Noir. A top-notch mystery set in the Budapest of the 1930s, on the track of a young woman’s murder.
  • Han Kang. The Vegetarian. A young woman goes from vegetarianism to pushing the envelope of what is human. The author is Korean.
  • Don Carpenter. Hard Rain Falling. A noir crime novel about a pool shark whose life goes from bad to worse. The beginning is particularly powerful.
  • Yu Miri. Tokyo Ueno Station. The author is a Japanese woman of Korean ancestry. A powerful look at urban homelessness in Tokyo.
  • Horacio Quiroga. 7 Best Short Stories. One for the kiddies. A Uruguayan author writes stories about the Argentinian jungle that are reminiscent of Kipling’s The Jungle Book.

I can see myself reading other works by Hodgkin, Szabo, Ferlinghetti, and Rulfo in the year to come.

The Januarius Budapest Trifecta

Having finished my jaunt to the decaying Roman Empire during the Visigothic invasions, I decided to read three books in a row written by Hungarian authors:

  • Vilmos Kondor’s Budapest Noir (2008), a first novel about a murder on the streets of Budapest.
  • Magda Szabo’s The Door (1987), a novel about the relationship between two women, a writer and a peasant.
  • Laszló F. Földényi’s Melancholy (1984), a history of melancholy through the ages.

As we begin 2023, I find the farther I get from my own Hungarian roots, the more at loose ends I feel. There is a figure in Greek mythology called Antaeus, about whom Wikipedia writes:

Antaeus would challenge all passers-by to wrestling matches and remained invincible as long as he remained in contact with his mother, the earth. As Greek wrestling, like its modern equivalent, typically attempted to force opponents to the ground, he always won, killing his opponents. He built a temple to his father using their skulls. Antaeus fought Heracles as he was on his way to the Garden of Hesperides as his 11th Labour. Heracles realized that he could not beat Antaeus by throwing or pinning him. Instead, he held him aloft and then crushed him to death in a bear hug.

Returning to my Hungarian roots is like Antaeus renewing himself by touching the earth. (If, however, I run into Heracles, I will pointedly avoid wrestling with him.)

So far, I am on schedule with my Januarius reading program.

Beginnings and Endings

My Januarius Project Is Named After the Roman God Janus

If you have been reading my blog for a long time, you may remember that I usually devote the month of January to reading writers I have never read before. According to one website:

Janus presides over beginnings and endings, passages and transitions, doorways and gateways, whether physical entry points between home and the outside world, city and countryside, or invisible ones like the connection between human and divine through prayer. He was said to have invented coinage, and appears on a number of coins with his characteristic two faces.

In fact, I have started the month by beginning Thomas Hodgkin’s eight-volume The Barbarian Invasions of the Roman Empire (originally called Italy and Her Invaders). Volume I covers the Visigothic Invasion. I fully expect it will take a number of years to complete the 5,000 pages of Hodgkin’s magnum opus—perhaps even more years than I have left. In any case, I have made a beginning.

As it will take me upwards of a week to complete the first volume, I will hold off before telling you what other titles are in my To Be Read (TBR) pile.

The reason I do what I call the Januarius Project is to avoid letting myself get bogged down doing such things as reading the minor works of my favorite writers. I do not pretend to have discovered the best writers who have ever lived, and I probably never will, as many of them have never been translated into English.

One feature of the project for this year is to include some classical historians, such as Hodgkin, who wrote his series between 1870 and 1899. There was some great history written back then, such as John Lloyd Stephens on discovering Maya ruins, Samuel Prescott and the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru and Francis Parkman on the history of Canada to the French and Indian War and the opening of the American West.

Check back with me to see what I plan to read next.

Outstanding, Good, So-So, Stinko

Martha Gellhorn

I have completed my Januarius Project for January 2022. Just to remind you, I typically reserve an entire month at or near the beginning of the year to introduce myself to authors whose work I have not hitherto read. Below is the summary, beginning with the best books and ending with the one stinko book.

Outstanding

  • Martha Gellhorn, Travels with Myself and Another. She might be Ernest Hemingway’s ex-wife, and she may well be as good if not better than her former hubby.
  • M F K Fischer, Two Towns in Provence. Consists of two parts, a great book on Aix-en-Provence, and a merely very very good book on Marseilles.
  • Saint Augustine, Confessions. I’d put this one off for decades, but it is really great, especially the chapter about time.
  • Kenzaburo Oe, A Personal Matter. A Nobel Prizewinner I will have to read more of.
  • Ben Loory, Stories for the Nighttime and Some for the Day. A great original short story collection of fantasy and horror.
  • Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Fearful Void. A solo journey across the width of the Sahara that didn’t pan out, though this book about it certainly did.
  • Derek Walcott, Midsummer. A Nobel Prizewinning poet from the Caribbean. Super stuff.

Good

  • Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. What the Marquis and Pornhub have in common.
  • Nic Pizzolatto, Galveston. A promising neo-noir author.
  • Edward Whittemore, Quin’s Shanghai Circus. Wild, exotic, and interesting.
  • Eric Jager, The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat. The 2021 Ridley Scott movie was based on this medieval thriller.
  • Roger Shattuck, The Banquet Years: Origins of the Avante-Garde in France 1885 to World War I. How four French artists (a painter, a composer, a poet, and a playwright) influenced modern art.

So-So

  • Pete Beatty, Cuyahoga. A weird fantasy on the early history of Cleveland, the city of my birth.
  • Meghan Abbott, Die a Little. Vaguely promising, but typical of a New Yorker who knows very little about L.A.
  • Peter Theroux, Translating LA: A Tour of the Rainbow City. Better than most, but nearly so good as his brother Paul’s work.

Stinko

  • William Beckford, Vathek. This 1786 oriental fantasy is still studied in college. Why?

All in all, this year’s Januarius project was a rousing success. Twelve out of the sixteen authors I read for the first time are worth following up on in the months and years to come.

The Januarius Project 2022

Near the beginning of every year, I set aside a month dedicated to reading authors I have never read before. The reason is to keep my book choices from becoming stale as I stick to the same set of “canonical” writers. So far this month, I have completed four books:

  • Pete Beatty’s Cuyahoga, a tall tale of Cleveland, Ohio (the city of my birth) set in 1837.
  • Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, a study of how the Marquis de Sade’s fiction morphed into modern-day porn.
  • Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another, a travel classic by a famed war correspondent and former wife of Ernest Hemingway.
  • Nic Pizzolatto’s Galveston, a superb, but bleak neo-noir novel about a hit man on the run to a city about which he has fond memories due to an early relationship.

It’s still early in January. I am currently reading Megan Abbott’s Die a Little and have plans to read works by George Meredith, William Beckford, Walter Kempinksi, Sam Wasson, Lászlo Földényi, Ben Loory, Elizabeth Hardwick, among others. According to past experiences doing this sort of thing, I will end up liking about half of the Januarius finds enough to read other works by them.

One result is that I find myself reading more books by women authors, which is a good thing.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Kate Harris and Melissa Yule Atop India’s Nun-Kun Massif

I was a good boy during the month of January: I read all of the books I had planned to read during this year’s Januarius Project and then some. Here is the final list, in the order I read them with a short evaluation for each:

  • George Washington Cable, The Grandissimes. A pleasant surprise. ****
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett, Bullivant and the Lambs. Abandoned. Couldn’t abide it. *
  • Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Öve. Delightful Swedish novel. ****
  • Georges Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution. Scholarly and interesting. ****
  • Trygve Gulbranssen, Beyond Sing the Woods. Interesting Norwegian tale. ****
  • Robert Goolrick, A Reliable Wife. Married life in Wisconsin in the 1800s. ****
  • Anne Brontë, Agnes Grey. Children are not always nice. ****
  • Kate Harris, Lands of Lost Borders: A Silk Road Journey. Great travel book. ****
  • Ragnar Jónasson, Nightblind. Icelandic police procedural. ***
  • Su Tong, Rice. A nasty character in 1930s China. ****
  • E R Eddison, The Worm Ourobouros. A fantasy novel that I abandoned, too wormy. *
  • Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, What Makes You NOT a Buddhist. A great intro. ****
  • Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers. The 1970s in New York and Italy. *****
  • Olga Grushin, The Dream Life of Sukhanov. Life is tough as the USSR comes unglued. *****
  • Ma Jian, Red Dust. A dissident travels around China in the 1980s. Great. *****

Chinese Dissident Ma Jian

That’s 15 books in all, not including F E Sillanpää’s Meek Heritage, which I finished on the last day of December 2020 ****.

With the exception of the two turkeys I abandoned (by Eddison and Compton-Burnett), I would have to say that this year’s Januarius Project was a smashing success. So successful, in fact, that I am planning a similar project for March, namely: reading only women authors. More about this as the month progresses.

Reinstating Januarius

The Month of January Is Named After the Two-Faced Roman God Janus

Except for the last two years, when I took January vacations to Guatemala and Yucatán respectively, I used to confine my reading for that month to authors I had not read before. Since my reading during trips is almost entirely on my Amazon Kindle, and I don’t like to experiment so much when I am away from my library, my vacation reading includes many familiar names.

Starting on New Years Day, I will once again return to what I call my Januarius Project, which is to familiarize myself with new authors so that my reading doesn’t become too rooted in the familiar. Among the books I have planned for next month are:

  • Franz Eemil Sillanpää’s Meek Heritage (Finland)
  • Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (Sweden)
  • Trygve Gulbrandsen’s Beyond Sing the Woods (Norway)
  • Ragnar Jónasson’s Nightblind (Iceland)
  • George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (USA)
  • Georges Lefebvre’s The Coming of the French Revolution (France)
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett’s Bullivant and the Lambs (England)
  • Compton Mackenzie’s Whisky Galore (Scotland), which was made into one of my favorite comic films
  • Anne Brontë’s Agnes Grey (England)

Frans Eemil Sillanpää (1888-1964)

I don’t know if I’ll complete all those books, but I will try. By the way, if you’ve noticed a preponderance of Scandinavian authors, that’s deliberate. I’ve read a lot of Icelandic literature, but very little from mainland Scandinavia.

We Americans tend, I think, to not stray far from American and English literature. And I have some friends who refuse to read a book that has been translated from another language—whereas roughly half of my reading is in translation.

Slim Memed

Yasha Kemal (1923-2015)

Yasha Kemal (1923-2015)

My Turkish friend David urged me to read Yasha Kemal’s Memed, My Hawk (1955). As part of my Januarius program of reading authors I’d never read before, I decided to look into it. It was nothing short of amazing. The following is from my review of the book for Goodreads.Com:

Yashar Kemal is probably the best known author from that most admirable of Middle-Eastern peoples: The Kurds. His Memed, My Hawk is a folk tale of injustice by a cruel landlord turning a young farmer’s son to brigandage. At the same time he is a brigand, he is scrupulously justice, especially when dealing with the poor and the innocent.

“Slim Memed,” as he is called, is a hero created by an author who doesn’t believe in heroes. In his introduction to the New York Review Books edition, Kemal writes:

I have never believed in heroes. Even in those novels in which I focus on revolt I have tried to highlight the fact that those we call heroes are in effect instruments wielded by the people. The people create and protect these instruments and stand or fall together with them.

PICMemedMyHawk

Still and all, Kemal was to write three more books featuring Slim Memed. For the first one, he was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1973. That award was won by the Australian Patrick White. I think it should have gone to Kemal.

Kemal’s villain is the landlord Abdi Agha, one of the most craven and beastly characters in all of literature. It is not until the end that Memed shoots three bullets into his chest, killing him; but he had been spiritually dead for years after Memed killed his nephew and wounded him.

 

The Return of Januarius

Janus: God of New Beginnings

Janus: God of New Beginnings

Just as there are drinking games, there can also be reading games. Such is my annual Januarius tradition, which I’ve been doing for more than fifteen years now. I merely wedded the name of Janus, the two-faced god of new beginnings, withthe month of January: During that month, I only read books by authors whom I have never before read.

So far this month, I have completed:

  • Helgi Olafsson’s Bobby Fischer Comes Home: The Final Years in Iceland, a Saga of Friendship and Lost Illusions
  • Zachary Karabell’s Peace Be Upon You: A Story of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Coexistence
  • Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden
  • Stan Jones’s Shaman Pass
  • Pierre Boulle’s The Face of a Hero

… and the month is not yet half over. I am looking forward to reading works by Sjón (the Icelandic novelist), Yashar Kemal, and Thomas Flanagan—among others.

So far, Leonid Tsypkin is my favorite of the five, with the author’s insight into the life of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and his wife Anna Grigori’evna, though all were pretty good.

 

Where to Pan for Gold

New York Review of Books Titles I Have Read This Month

New York Review Books Titles I Have Read This Month

At different times in my life, I have fallen in love with different publishers: Penguin, Oxford, Dover, Modern Library, New Directions. Now I am mightily enamored with the publications of New York Review Books. The four titles illustrated above are books by authors I had never read before, but which I read this month as part of my Januarius project. Of the three best books I have read this month, two—Andrey Platonov’s Soul and Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight—were New York Review Books. The third, Juan José Saer’s The Witness, was recommended to me by an article in The New York Review of Books, which publishes New York Review Books.

I am always amazed by the editorial acumen of the publishers of New York Review Books: They seek out the best in Twentieth Century literature, whether it be from Russia, Hungary, Finland, Germany, Asia, Africa, or wherever. So many of the best discoveries I have made in the last few years have come from there that I follow their emails and website closely to populate my TBR (To Be Read) list.

Just this month, they came out with Silvina Ocampo’s Thus Were Their Faces: Selected Stories. Silvina and her sister Victoria Ocampo were closely associated with Jorge Luis Borges, who is one of only two or three authors whom I idolize,  collect, and ingest in bulk.