Thursday, June 21, 2012

Afternoon Reads

One of my favorite reading experiences is to read a novella or short novel straight through. Maybe over the course of a hike, or a walk around Cambridge (and, yes, I can walk and read at the same time, so far, without injury) or even just on my porch. I usually have several books going at the same time, so it’s nice to really focus every now and again and read a book as a single, unified experience. For that afternoon, I am in the world of that book and nowhere else. Here are a few of my favorite afternoon reads.

Antwerp by Roberto Bolano. Antwerp is Bolano’s first novel, written when he was a mere 23 and in it you can see many of the seeds for his greatest works. There is a dead body (or several), a police officer, a wandering artistic voice, a film projection in the woods, a hunchback. The novel moves back and forth and though the events accumulate around certain themes and images, this experimental story never congeals around what one would normally consider a plot. I had to bring my younger brother to South Station to catch a bus so I read most of the book on the train and finished it before dinner. On my way home from the restaurant I bumped into a friend of mine who happened to be celebrating a birthday and gave her the book. Hopefully, she’ll have a free afternoon soon.


The Literary Conference by Cesair Aira. Aira might be the master of afternoon reads. He’s written around 90 short novels, only a handful of which have been translated into English. I discovered him with the beautiful, philosophical, haunting novel Ghosts, but for kicking back for an afternoon read, you can’t beat The Literary Conference. It starts with pirate treasure and ends with the destruction of a city by giant cloned worms. It’s also about translation. And theatrical plays. Aira is definitely one of the most interesting writers in the world.


The Beauty Salon by Mario Belatin. I read this walking to and around Mt. Auburn Cemetery and it has to be one of the weirdest books I have ever read. It’s set in a vague dystopian future where people are dying of a strange plague. A beauty salon becomes a refuge for the dying and the stylist becomes the closest thing they have to a hospice nurse. While trying to care for the dying, run a business, and live a life, the hero maintains an exotic aquarium. The book is weird not just because of what happens, but how it is told. We all have expectations for how books work, and Belatin manages to baffle them all. For that alone, The Beauty Salon deserves an afternoon.


Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. The perfect way to read this Pulitzer Prize finalist is to throw it in the back seat of your car for a massive road trip through the American heartland. Or maybe stow it in your backpack when you take out a chunk of the Appalachian Trail. If you’ve got more than a few afternoons on your journey, no problem, because you can start this brilliant portrait of American character over again right after you finish.

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