Seeing other people

Pub date November 28, 2007
WriterAri Messer


WISH LIST When I give a book as a present, I like to have a good story to tell about where it came from — about the author’s travels or secret family life or public stunts. Many of 2007’s best bets for worthy literary gifts tell such stories on their own. Curated, compiled, and translated, they have the marks of an outside force, concerning themselves with how other people — an author’s child, a lover from another culture, eccentrics from California’s Central Valley — secretly see the world.

Sexy, contemplative, elusive, and addictive, Your Face Tomorrow: Fever and Spear (New Directions, 400 pages, $15.95 paper), translated by Margaret Jull Costa, is the first installment in Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow detective trilogy. Marías maps the sharpness and strange beauty of interpersonal relationships onto a larger relationship between Spain and England. The narrator’s intense observations of people expose the spooky ways in which we read our lives: "those who catch or capture or, rather, absorb the image before them gain a great deal, especially as regards knowledge and the things that knowledge permits."

Orhan Pamuk’s Other Colors (Knopf, 448 pages, $27.95), a collection of essays and one story, translated by Maureen Freely, is similarly a book that anyone interested in literature or love or cities or sounds or writers’ families will return to. "When Rüya Is Sad," one of several snippets about Pamuk’s daughter, ends so touchingly that the richly detailed worlds evoked in the Nobel Prize–winning Turkish author’s novels become more intimate, less imagined: "The two of us gazed out the window without speaking for the longest time, I in my chair and Rüya on the divan, and we both — Rüya sadly and I with joy — thought about how beautiful it was."

When Pamuk spoke in Berkeley in October, he noted that it can take him a long time to warm up to even the best translations of his work. New World/New Words: Recent Writing from the Americas (Center for the Art of Translation, 266 pages, $18.95), edited by Thomas Christensen, is a continuously exciting Spanish-English exploration of the passion of translation. "O body, love and Lord, / Show me a tree made in your image," poet Pura López-Colomé writes in "Prisma/Prism," translated by Forrest Gander.

The characters in the new edition of Highway 99: A Literary Journey Through California’s Great Central Valley (Heyday/Great Valley Books, 592 pages, $18.95 paper) also ask the land to reveal divinity. Editors Stan Yogi, Gayle Mak, and Patricia Wakida present a fantastic stable of story makers, from Yokuts California Indians to Joan Didion. The resulting read is hot, dry, wet, and, ultimately, mythic — something hard to achieve on a road trip through Fresno. In "The Underground Gardens," Robert Mezey writes hauntingly of Sicilian immigrant Baldassare Forestiere’s underground gardens in Fresno (still maintained), remembering that Forestiere "clawed at the earth forty years / But it answered nothing." In the poem, the gardener becomes both Christ and seeker.

I wish that cultural critic Antonio Monda had trod similar earth-meets-human ground in Do You Believe? Conversations on God and Religion (Vintage, 192 pages, $12.95 paper), or at least asked his famous interviewees (Spike Lee, Grace Paley, David Lynch, and 15 others) to do what they do best: create something that more fully tells the story of their views of the divine. Either the editors cut out a lot to fit in so many interviews, or Monda was often in a rush; it’s hard to imagine the subjects really responded with one or two brief sentences to provocative questions and statements such as "What does death mean to you?" and "Religion teaches us to defend life to the last breath." Nonetheless, there are moments of clarity here. The book’s symphony of voices reaches a climax when Toni Morrison, pressed about her belief in an "intelligent entity," replies that when she thinks "of the infiniteness of time, I get lost in a mixture of dismay and excitement. I sense the order and harmony that suggest an intelligence, and I discover, with a slight shiver, that my own language becomes evangelical."

Of course, there are ways to be excited without being evangelical. Harold Bloom’s close reading of the gospels in Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine (Riverhead, 256 pages, $15 paper) renews our faith in the value and spirit of the critic. A trio of photography books also transcend theological back-and-forth: The Black Hole, by Anouk Kruithof and Jaap Scheeren (Episode, 102 pages, $32 paper), is a delightful response to a series of newspaper articles of the same name about the future of art school graduates. Reading Jeff Wall, a collaboration between the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art (168 pages, $50), is like strolling down the block with an old friend who happens to have curated the wide-eyed Canadian artist’s current retrospective at SFMOMA (through Jan. 27, 2008). Ghosts Caught on Film, by Melvyn Willin (David and Charles Publishers, 160 pages, $16.99), is a foray into the world of double-exposed — I mean paranormal — photography, more fun than a game of Balderdash in which you’ve already looked up all the words beforehand. And one last idea: Give everyone on your list the same book and you’ll feel like a City Arts and Lectures moderator, or maybe even the contented curator at an invite-only museum of life.